If it ain't broke fix it.

My children are three and five years old at the moment so it seemed appropriate in a number of ways that Santa brought a copy of the game Connect 4 for Christmas. I had it when I was young and the mixture of simplicity and mild competition seemed like a good 'next step' in terms of what toys we have in the house.

The game itself is of course a classic one of those easy to learn, impossible to master games. OK, it leans towards the noughts and crosses (actually possible to master) end of the spectrum but still with a lot of mileage for youngsters. It is no doubt an excellent precursor to the kind of think-X-moves-ahead games such as chess.

Tics, tiles and a bit of toy nostalgia

It wasn't the tactics that stuck with me though as much as the tactile nature of the game itself; aspects beyond the actual game play which I'm sure anyone who has ever owned, or even played the game, will remember too.

The board itself was a lovely exercise in simplicity, standing upright between the two players, slotting into two vaguely triangular legs at each end. There were slots to drop your tokens into at the top and that wonderful swinging bottom to let them out again. Also the holes through the board where you could shove a finger to prevent a token falling or in extremis try to manoeuvre them back up and out of the board again.

The swing out bottom to the game is something which immediately conjures memories of childhood; not least the mad clatter of tokens on table, and the diving to catch and retrieve the large amount which inevitably shot off onto the floor.

The tokens themselves in red and yellow, an inch and a bit in diameter and with that little row of dimples around the edges, perfectly positioned to enable them to be placed in little non-toppling stacks (or one big one if you're careful). I don't know if this lovely design was taken from another type of token; as far as I can see it bares no relation to the game whatsoever. However, it shows a real understanding, on the part of the designers, for the context of the game and the little peripheral activities which accompany it.

The mild surprise of the new

So it was with these memories I opened the box, removed the pieces of the game and began to assemble it. The tokens, whilst looking a little brighter than I remember, still had that unmistakable design. The two end legs were gone, replaced by an oval ring in the same blue plastic which lies on the table and into which the vertical board now slots. The board still had the swinging bottom but with an extra sideways sliding mechanism. There is also a sideways sliding piece attached to the top of the board too.

These aren't major changes. The game is still recognisable. They are in fact slight improvements, little redesigns which not only improve the experience of playing with this game, but in one case wonderfully expand its possibilities. What I love about them is that as with the dimples in the tokens they show a real understanding both of the game and how it’s played and it shows clearly the way that, if you understand your product and your audience well enough you can find ways to improve and enhance your product without destroying the simplicity which made it great to start with.

Let’s take a look shall we?

1) The first change is a moveable piece which sits across the top of the board. When moved this closes off the top of all the slots. When you’ve finished the game you can place all the pieces back into the board, close this and they'll all stay there neat and tidy till next time. Having grown up with the game contained in an increasingly battered cardboard box, from which tokens would inevitably escape this seems like an obvious addition. Whilst it’s by no means necessary it none the less improves the experience (and longevity) of the game.

2) Secondly the new oval stand. I mentioned before the clattering of tokens was an evocative memory and whilst this is still very much in evidence the oval base serves to reduce the distance that most of the token manage to escape. I don't know whether it’s by design or by accident but significantly the oval isn't completely effective. There are still always several tokens which escape it’s clutches and I can't help feeling that that’s just the way it should be. Part of the excitement (or apprehension) of flicking open the bottom of the board was always the anticipation of the chaos that would ensue, the fact that this has been reduced but not removed again signifies to me a real understanding of the user experience and what was right about it.

3) Finally the extra mechanism on the swinging bottom performs a neat trick. Instead of just closing off the bottom of the board to prevent the tokens falling out, the whole bottom row of the board has effectively been removed and the bottom piece is now the only thing holding those tokens in place. The cunning aspect of this is that it actually has two ways of being shut. The first is as you'd expect where it acts as it did before, preventing the tokens from falling until you swing it out of the way. The second though (accessible by sliding part of the piece sideways) allows the bottom row of tokens to be "popped" out sideways one by one which allows for a completely new set of games to be played.

To change or not to change

Connect 4 is such a childhood classic for me it’s easy to get nostalgic about it but also it’s lovely to find evidence of really high quality design in such a place too. It’s great to find designers who understand so completely their product that whist feeling the pressures of "feature creep" manage to embrace it without destroying the value in what they had. It is an extremely hard task to unpick which aspects of your product are vital to it and which are perhaps not needed. Even harder to come up with additional features and perform the same judgement on them.

There are countless examples of this being done badly. A great and well loved product engulfed by a wave of new features until what was great in the first place is all but hidden. So many examples in fact that it would be easy just to apply a rule of thumb that says: if a product is at all good it would be advisable just to leave well alone. That kind of conservative attitude though stifles innovation.

It is lovely to find an example (however small) where this hasn't been the case. Where innovation has been allowed to flourish even after a great success, and that those making the changes have had enough knowledge, understanding and have taken enough care that everything they’ve done has enhanced the product.