Greg's Design Blog

A collection of posts by game designer Gregory Carslaw, including mirrors of all of his blogs maintained for particular projects. A complete index of posts can be found here: https://boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/58777/index

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History of Games

Greg
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There's a project that may or may not happen, that I can't talk about in detail at the moment, that has an odd requirement: We need to take the development of board games and split it into four "ages" each of which contains games that modern gamers would recognise and at least have some inkling of the rules of. Let's give it a go!

The Oldest Game

For a long time I had it in my head that the oldest game is Go. Board game geek lists it as being invented in -2200, Wikipedia says the earliest written record of it is -400, I'm not sure what the definitively pinned down date is, but that game is old!

It's not the oldest though, at some point in the past I was misinformed and never challenged my assumptions. I'm confidently informed that Senet is older and we've found some wicked neat sets in old tombs. That game is looking at -3500.

It's probably not the oldest game was, because we found these beauties. Those are from 1500 years before our oldest copy of Senet so, the oldest game was, uh...whatever that is. Maybe. Or they really are some sort of counting stone and not a game at all. Or "ritual purposes"

Chess and Cards

When Western non gamers talk about old games they're usually thinking about chess and a variety of games played with a 54 card deck. Chess is 1450, thousands of years after the really old games and cards got started around 850 but they didn't mutate into what we'd recognise as a pack of playing cards until they came to Europe and went through various mutations over the 14th to 19th centuries.

Classic Board Games

I tried asking a few people a generation older than me what they thought classic modern board games were - as in stuff that wasn't ancient and part of anything they'd think of as "history" - but that has been around forever. The answers I got were Monopoly, Snakes and Ladders and Risk. Huh, there's no BGG article for Snakes and Ladders, a few specific variations are mentioned, but the main one is missing. Does that seem like a weird gap to anyone else?

In any event as I'm sure most of your know S&L technically fits in with the ancient games, being derived from an Indian game that's at least a thousand years older than chess. But they're probably thinking of the Milton Bradley thing that got ported over in 1943 - which would fit with the dates of the other two (1933 and 1959 respectively). Basically they're naming things that were already in the house when they were kids.

Games that were already in the house when I was a kid

I remember growing up with the 80s bookcase games. Technically I they might have entered the house after me (I was born 1984) but they predated my ability to form memories which amounted to the same thing. Also the sort of boxes that people manufactured back then were weak - after a couple of years of regular play they looked like some artefact from the before times and my parents liked games.

So mentally, on some level, old games to me means gems like Titan and atrocities against gaming like Outdoor Survival. Some of these games would be recognised by folks who didn't grow up with them on account of Fantasy Flight deciding to publish a bunch of old games in shiny new formats.

Modern Games

Getting into things that people would talk about as actually modern games I can observe the development of that over my lifetime. Catan rocking up in the mid 90s and people wondering if maybe it wouldn't be terrible forever if Euros had some randomness, or Ameritrash games had some theme. Dominion swaggering up in 2008 saying "Maybe we haven't found *all* of the genres yet followed shortly by everyone losing their shit and making a million clone babies. Pandemic jumps onto the stage around the same time and raising "Cooperative games are a thing" to volume that eclipsed some muffled cries of "But we've had those for years". Followed by Risk Legacy announcing "I'm too much game to only appear in a potted history of game development the one time!"

Alongside all of this Kickstarter waggled its eyebrows suggestively and whispered "What if you could support games you wanted, even if they were too niche for a publisher to pick up? What if you got to talk with the designer before it was printed and could make sure it'd grow in the way you wanted? What if you got more components per pound because the distributor doesn't get a cut? All of this could be yours!" and people saying "Yaaaay" but suddenly sometimes money disappears with no game showing up and also minis everywhere whether you like them or not. So some of the people were sad and swore never to do it again. But enough people loved the promise of a million minis and kept Cool Mini or Not printing as much money as they wanted.

Parallel Developments

As all of this happened alongside board gaming, war gaming and roleplaying were also growing up. Wargames asking questions like "What if we had models instead of counters?" and then "This is a lot of painting, can we use fewer models?" While roleplaying asked questions like "What if as well as killing everything we did some role playing?" and then "Do we need to kill anything at all?" (With a side order of "Yes you have to kill everything and also what if there were a million supplements to help you do more of that")

The project I'm looking at doesn't need to deal with either of those things in detail, but it might be worth leaning out of the window on the drive past and grabbing an idea or two from each.

Putting it All Together

History is messy and things overlap. It's also really big, I've barely scratched the surface here, you could fill tomes and tomes with a full history of board games developing over the years. Though I'd like to see a board games history presented in the manner of this history of the world.

What I need is four distinct "ages" of board games that are nice and neat and that each one contains at least a few games that'd be iconic and recognised by the average gamer who doesn't care at all deeply about the history of things.

What I'm considering at the moment is this:

Ancient Games
This covers almost all of human history, right up to -5000 to 1900. I'm aware this is misuse of the term "ancient". While historically there are thousands of years between things like Chess and Go I think that a lot of players mentally dump them into the same category. Despite its absurdly broad time catchment I suspect this grouping will feel natural to most gamers.

Classic Games
This covers 1900-1945, pulling in the classic Milton Bradley stuff like Monpoly and (modern) Snakes and Ladders. Things that people will perceive as "too recent to be history" but also "too dated for most people to remember them being invented". There's a possibility of doing something a bit messy here and treating the dates like guidelines and assigning games based on the sort of school of design it feels like they're from - by date Risk doesn't belong in this category but people may feel it fits here more naturally.

The Divide
The Ameritrash / Eurogame thing feels less clear cut these days than it used to, but having an explicit age in which we've got those streams of development happening in parallel seems like an important note not to miss. Also while it's not really how game development is today (partially thanks to the internet) the consequences of it are still echoing. So having an age that goes 1945-1995 to capture how that is before global communications really get going seems like a neat thing to do.

Modern Games
And finally 1995-present covers everything in boxes that still look nicer after a decade than the bookcase games did after a year (Though I suppose I should acknowledge that as a child I looked after games less well). This age has a dual problem of being too narrow (in that it covers the smallest number of years) and too broad (in that it covers the largest number of games people will recognise if I name them). I suppose its inevitable that whichever age that includes "present" will wind up that way.

I'm not sure that I'm completely satisfied with this way of looking at things, but as a guideline to do a first draft of something it'll do. Like most of the things I do as a game designer having a starting point is the most important thing because the main process of the work is endless testing and improvement
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Fri Aug 3, 2018 10:26 am
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Resource Asymmetry

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Introduction

Lately I've been playing a computer game called Tales of Maj'Eyal. I wanted to talk a little bit about how resource management in that game works and what lessons we can take away for board games. Let's dive in.

Description of Resources in ToME

Characters in ToME all have some sort of resource that they use in order to activate their abilities. The resources vary considerably but they're all used in the same way, you click on an ability and it uses the appropriate amount of resource. Let's look at a few:

Stamina. Click the ability, stamina is reduced by the cost, if you don't have enough then you can't use the ability. It comes back over time.

Mana. Click the ability, mana is reduced by the cost, if you don't have enough then you can't use the ability. Depending on who you are it might not come back naturally and you need to use another ability to restore it.

Souls. Click the ability, souls are reduced by the cost, if you don't have enough then you can't use the ability. Comes back each time you kill someone while close enough to hoover up their soul.

Equilibrium. Click the ability, equilibrium is increased by the cost. Then there's a %chance roll to see if the ability happens or if you've wasted your turn - the higher your equilibrium the higher the chance of a missed turn. It falls over time.

Paradox. Click the ability, paradox is increased by the cost. Then there's a %chance roll to see if you get a paradox backlash instead of your ability - the higher your paradox the higher the chance of a backlash and the more extreme the backlash. Your current paradox level also acts as a multiplier for the power of your spells, so high paradox makes you more powerful. It returns to a level of your choice over time.

Insanity. Click the ability, insanity is reduced by the cost, if you don't have enough then you can't use the ability. The higher it is the greater the random number added or subtracted from everything you do. It falls over time and can only be restored in combat by using abilities that generate it on hitting enemies.

There are a bunch more: Hate, Vim, Positive Energy, Negative Energy and Psi - but you get the idea.

Why do we care?

The consequence of this variety of resources is that similar abilities can feel very different because of the resources they use. You can have two abilities that fundamentally do the same thing - say shoot a beam damaging everything along the beam - but the resource it uses depends on how you apply it.

If it uses mana then it makes sense to use it early and often, but you want to keep a plan in mind to escape combat and recover if you run short. If it relies on insanity then your opening gambit needs to include some insanity gain to make it useful, so you're trying to find a way to combo with another ability that both generates insanity and pulls opponents into a line to get the most out of the follow up. If it's using paradox then you can use it an awful lot, but there's an associated risk - do you start at a high pardox so your opening salvo hits hard or a low one so you get more shots before you risk exploding yourself?

The fact that the ability/resource combination is meaningful allows a game to have a lot of skills. In the same amount of time you could design ten abilities, you could design five abilities and five resources - generating a total of twenty five possible abilities. Not all of those would be any good, some would surely be eliminated through playtesting, but it's a way to put a lot of variety into a game without having a huge amount of rules to learn.

Asymmetric Resources in Board Games

There are plenty of games that'll let you arrive at the same outcome through different expenditures.

Race for the Galaxy has cards that'll allow you to play a some planets by discarding cards or by having enough military. Descent will let you move a space using a point of movement or a point of fatigue. You can hold a territory in Game of Thrones using a unit or using a power token.

Doing the same thing using different resources that function in different ways is a great source of meaningful decisions - but in these games it's not the core of the game, it's a neat extra thing.

There are also games that let you simultaneously manage several resources in order to buy things using their combination. Something like Splendor offering the player several types of gem to make their purchases. But in these games the resources all behave in fundamentally the same way.

I can't think of an example of a tabletop game that's really embraced the possibilities of concurrent asymmetric resources either as a way to create distinctions between players or to produce meaningful decisions in how players progress - but I'd be really interested to see one attempted. If I don't find one perhaps I'll give it a whirl some day.

How about you, have you heard of one? Is there a game I should try to see how this works in practice?
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Wed Jul 25, 2018 11:12 am
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Third Order Balancing in Genesis

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Today's topic is third order balancing, but I'm going to talk about it in the context of a game I'm working on called Genesis. Partly because that makes it easier to understand and partly because writing about the subject might help me find new solutions for that game. Let's get started!

Genesis is a game in which the players take the role of gods struggling over the world. Each player selects three domains to decide what sort of god they are - these are things that could finish the phrase "God of..." like war, death, love etc.

Each domain grants the player a champion, each one of which has three cards, giving everyone a hand of nine to begin the game. On their turn each player simultaneously chooses and plays a card. If they play a card for a champion they've already got in play the old one is discarded, otherwise it's added to their existing champions. All champions (including ones still present from previous turns) use their special ability. Finally the champion with the highest power is added to a winners pile.

Whoever has the most champions in the winners pile after someone runs out of cards (Usually nine turns) wins the game.

So far, so good - so what's the balancing problem?

Well obviously it's desirable to make sure that the domains have a roughly equal chance to win. If one offers champions that are simply better than the others then you may as well pack away the game after domains are chosen and announce the player with that domain the winner.

So the first order balancing problem is "How do I make sure each domain has roughly equal power?"

There are some fairly obvious answers here. Making sure that all champions in a domain have the same total power and then adjusting it up or down a smidge based on how useful their abilities are seems like the answer. The abilities follow a standard form of having two icons, one for who is targeted and one for what happens to them. A handful of standard abilities like "target all enemies" and "discard from play" occur across all domains, but each domain also has a unique icon that only appears to cards from that domain. That's what makes being a "God of disaster" feel like being a "God of *disaster*" rather than "The god wot gets a 3 5 and 8 rather than a 1 6 and 9".

Special abilities make things tricky because the context of the game then starts to matter. For instance the champion of beasts has a power 4 monster card that grants itself the pack leader icon which gives +1 power for each monster in play. So what power should I consider that card? Played in isolation its a 4 - but in theory there might be four players with three monsters out each so he could be a 16. I could work out the average number of beasts in play if everyone's playing randomly - but people won't play randomly.

You might anticipate that the player choosing the beast domain will choose two other domains that have a lot of monsters in so that they can power up thier own ability. Their opponent might decide to be a god of water. This gives them access to the powerful flood card and its "Destroy all monsters in play" ability.

So is the champion of beasts any good? Are they a decent 7 because their owner will synergise with three monsters, or are they weak because they signal a creature type giving the opponent information to exploit?

The second order balancing problem is "How do I make sure each domain has roughly equal power, accounting for the fact that players will choose other cards knowing it's in play?"

But wait, it gets worse! Suppose I have chosen to be the god of beasts and my opponent has decided to counter by being a god of water. I still want to play monsters to get my bonus, but have to account for the possibility that my opponent will play "kill all monsters". Can I do anything about that?

You bet I can! I could decide to be a god of weather and have beasts with the "Unaffected by abilities that cause instant kills" or I could be a god if disaster and have "Destroy and protect effects are reversed, all destroy powers protect and all protect powers destroy". My opponent has similar options, they could see that I've planned for their plan, but they can plan for my plan that I've planned for thier plan! Perhaps they'll take "God of fear" with its "Target does not get to use its ability" powers.

Which gives us a tough time of balancing - because in order to determine how powerful we think the beasts domain is we're now taking into account the existence of the fear domain. But, when it's time to edit the fear domain, we need to take into account the existence of the beasts domain.

Which gives us the third order problem that languidly brings us to the point of this post: "How do I make sure each domain has roughly equal power, accounting for the fact that players will choose other cards knowing its in play and then choose cards knowing *those* cards are in play?"

"Not easily"

Now the ultimate answer is, of course, the same as it always is: Lots of playtesting!

No matter what tricks we try to pull there's no substitute for watching the game played lots of times and seeing which domains tend to win and lose and making changes based on that.

But with the interconnectedness of all cards being what it is, there's a huge advantage to starting playtesting from a position that's closer to our goal state than one at random. So let's consider what we can do.

The obvious first step is to aim for the champions of each domain to have the same total power - since printed power ranges 1-9 then an average of 5 might seem appropriate. However we intend to reduce power totals later in line with how good the cards abilities are, so actually starting at an average of 6 or 7 seems like a smarter idea.

The next step is harder, which is to determine the average value of abilities and adjust the power of cards downwards accordingly. Here the goal is to make a determination of how much an ability is worth and remove the appropriate amount of power form some card in its domain.

Now a player can enhance an ability by playing cards it synergises with and their opponent can do the opposite. The active player has an advantage here since they know when they're going to play the second half of the combo, but their opponent might get their timing wrong. However the active player might not want to pair it with the best possible option to make it harder for their opponent to predict and counter. Here I make the following assumption "The value of an ability is worth approximately what it'll be worth when combo'd with the second best option in a situation that's halfway between a random situation and the optimal position to play that ability in." and go forward on that basis.

The third step is the hardest, how best to account for possible counterplay? Here I forget about balancing individual abilities and try to address the problem through a design philosophy. The philosophy is simply this: "Any tactic that is anticipated and properly countered will be utterly crushed."

The core of the game is selecting champions and using them at the right moment to maximise their effectiveness. Perfect timing should be rewarded and implementing this philosophy means every ability has the same value at the third order: It's always 0 because your opponent has always won. This simplifies the calculation substantially.

This calls for the game to contain cards which are very strong given the right predictions. "Kill all X" are highly effective, so long as every card has a class and every class has at least one kill all associated. Also cards of a form "Make a prediction about the card your opponent has chosen but not yet revealed, if you're right then kill it." Then things that counter or reverse particular abilities like "Your opponents card targets itself rather than its intended target" or "Kill powers now protect and protect powers now kill".

This is a process I've now been through with this game over nine times.

Each time I rewrite a great many cards trying to obtain a new balance that makes me happy - one that makes the domains equally likely to win, but also preserves their uniquess and makes the game more about skill than luck. A player needs enough information to make a prediction or the game falls apart - a perfect information zero randomness game can be a game of chance if players don't make meaningful decisions after all.

The iterations of playtesting are having an impact on how easily I can value abilities. At first "This is worth a +1 that is worth a +2" was pretty much guesswork - but as time goes on I'm more likely to change an ability in a way that is right first time. Or to anticipate how making a change in one place means that something that's worked just fine for the last three iterations now also needs to change, without needing to see an unenjoyable game to see it happen.

So the advice I wanted to offer was this:

1.It's good to have some sort of abstract (I hesitate to say necessarily mathematical) model to get your early game as close to a goal as possible before testing.
2. Don't abandon the model when you start testing. Instead refine it and keep using it, it'll make each iteration more productive.
3. You can nuke the third order balancing problem by making a certain order of prediction powerful against everything (Though this is only a start).

This game isn't perfect yet and my approach isn't perfect either, but that's where I'm at today. I'll let you know if it's any different tomorrow.

(Also no pictures this week because the server won't let me upload them. How do folks feel about that? Are the pictures adding much and nicely breaking up the text or did they just get in the way?)
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Fri Jul 20, 2018 3:23 pm
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Designing for Art Requirements

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Hiring an illustrator for your games cards can be expensive. I've had quotes anywhere between £10 per card and £300 per card. The complexity of the art style you're looking for, the experience and reputation of the artist and a host of other factors play into this figure. Given that a card game could easily have 54 cards requiring an image each that could be the difference between £540 and £16,200 over the course of a game. It's a big decision.

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I'd like to talk about what a designer can do to make this part of the publication process easier, but first I'll offer an example from some of my past games to illustrate how hard this can be:

Escape the Nightmare raised less than £10,000. If we'd hired a top rate artist then the art costs alone would've been greater than the project raised. The art really needed to be on a budget for the project to be successful. Scandinavia and the World raised over £61,000 - we could've spent a significant amount on art and still had the project work out overall.

The trouble is this: For each game we had to determine who the artist was (and therefore our art spend per card) before the game was launched. A good project means showing a good game, which means showing some final art. Knowing what to spend on art is dependant upon knowing how well the game does because the cost is divided between all games rather than on a "per game" basis like manufacturing is. So you need to know how well the game will do before launch to make an optimum art decision.

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Now in both of these examples we dodged the question on the publisher side. With Escape the Nightmare we used art from artists who'd usually charge closer to the top end of the scale, but we'd already paid for the commissions for another project and (with their permission) didn't need to use it again. With Scandinavia and the World we were partnered with a webcomic who got a share of the profits but provided all of the art. That's not always possible though, it hasn't been for more than half of our previous projects and probably won't be for our next one - so lets talk about what a designer can do.

Knowing that we weren't paying a cost per card on EtN and SatW my design brief was "Use as much art as you want" and the design of those games reflects it.

The situation for other games is different. The artist has to be chosen before how well the project is done is known, but the designer has control of the other side of the equation: How many pieces of art does this game need?

There are two philosophies that can work here: "Minimise art" and "Flexible art"

The first is simply to design the game in a way that requires the fewest possible pieces of art. If a game can say "Well there are five types of card and the piece of art on a card will depend on its type" then you can spend almost whatever you want on the art per card without meaningfully impacting the overall budget. This is often the simplest solution, but can make it harder for the game to deliver its theme and is something worth trying at a prototype stage (rather than prototyping with art everywhere knowing damn well it won't be there in the final thing) to see how testers find it.

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The second and more complicated approach is to try to make the amount of art in a game flexible, so that the decision about the amount to spend on art can be made after the amount available in the art budget is known.

This is trickier from a design perspective, but the goal is to have cards that could have individual images or that could all have the same image. For example a game might have cards for "Fire bolt" "Fireball" and "Inferno" that could share an image or could have different images. If the project goes well then they get one image shared between all of the cards. If it goes exceptionally well then the extra budget can be used illustrating them individually.

I think this is fairly common, most likely as a result of designers coming up with games they'll pitch to several publishers who have different approaches to art. I don't want to name a game here because while I'd mean it as "Here's something sensibly designed to make sure gamers get the most out of their work" some idiot will take it as "I accuse this designer of being cheap" - but I'm sure you can generate lots of examples from your own games collection. Off the top of my head I can think of a dozen examples of game where cards with titles that imply they could be drawn individually, but that share art in a way that works and feels consistent with the theme.

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The opportunity for designers to modify games to suit art doesn't end at theming cards to permit art duplication if necessary. It's good for design to magnify every aspect of a game wherever possible.

For instance with the Genesis project 3DTotal is very keen on bringing in a very high quality artist. That means spending a lot of money on art and a design that does the best to really show off and integrate that art is going to be important. There are a few games out there now using tarot sized cards rather than the traditional 63x88mm cards. That's all well and good - but a game has to be designed for that from the ground up!

The physicality of a card changes how they are used. A game with physically larger cards needs to minimise activities like shuffling that are harder with more cumbersome cards. It's also important to consider the amount of space a game needs on the table to make it playable in the environments you'd like to see it played. On the other hand it also presents opportunities - you can make more assumptions about what a player can see on their opponents cards from across the table for instance.

The point that I'm driving at with this post is that there are a lot of things that can be thought of as "The publishers problem" that are made easier or harder by the choices a designer makes in building their game. In a good game the design of the game itself and its physical nature and presentation are intertwined. It's worth being conscious of the pressures facing your publisher and of their strengths and limitations so that you can make the most out of working with them.
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Fri Jul 13, 2018 10:05 am
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Open Objectives

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Original Post: This is the original! Something is wrong with the 3DTotal site so for one week only I'm writing directly on BGG. Also there'll be no images since I don't do hotlinking and can't upload them to the 3DTotal site. Lets get started...

One of the most fundemental parts of a game is that the end state of the game declares some number of winners and/or losers creating a goal state to aim towards and motivating every other part of the game. If gameplay is about interesting decisions then the mechanism for creating interesting decisions is to offer two things that bring a player closer to the winning condition and require a certain amount of skill for the player to determine which one of these things will result in more progress.

This is so important that the guidelines for uploading a game to BGG start with "What is a Game? In the abstract, a game is something where a single person or a group competes or cooperates toward a goal whereby one or more players win or one or more players lose."

So what happens when a designer breaks this rule?

I wrote about Consentacle a while back, the Kickstarter was delivered recently and one of my friends excitedly brought it over to my house to play. Skipping over the theme as briefly as we're able: It's a game about a consentual sexual encounter between an astronaught and a tentacle alien. The reason I've brought it up in this context is that it has a scoring system, but does nothing to define one outcome as "better" than another. As such it doesn't produce a clear winner. At the end you get a line of text based on how your character experienced the game, consisting of an opening line based on the total statisfaction tokens created and a closing one based on how many you got. Consider these three closers:

"...remained happy to desire whatever your partner did, and little more."
"...were left aching with desire and unfulfilled, wracked by your partner’s satiated smile."
"...took care to share your moaning pleasures in perfectly equal measure, at times forsaking wild abandon for fairness."

You could make a fair argument that the middle option is the worst of the three, but it's also middling in score so it doesn't have a simple "higher is better" scoring mechanism. Even if you felt the statements were in order, there's no formal result for how to compare one overall statement to another. Did someone who got a stronger first line and weaker second line do better than someone who was middling at both? The game doesn't say.

What the design is doing is being ruthlessly simulationist. It doesn't care for your desire to 'win', it's not trying to gamify the sitaution (any more than necessary to be a game). Instead it's going to simulate the situation, let you do whatever you want and tell you the outcome. You can decide what you're trying to do. That's strong here for two reasons: Firstly the outcome is something thematic that a lot of people have strong feelings and experiences of, so it's natural that people will have some sort of heirarchical thought about it. Secondly the game is about communicating (with restrictions) with your parter to synchronise your plays to best achieve...whatever it is you're trying to achieve. The possibility that you're working at slight cross purposes to do this enhances that aspect of play since that mixes "Am I interpreting their signals correctly?" with "Are we persuing the same objective?". Where the core gameplay is communication, enriching the complexity of the communication without increasing the complexity of the game is a good thing.

Having a "result" rather than a "winner" lets the game do things it otherwise couldn't. So as a design choice, where else could it go?

I'd be interested to see a legacy game that was bold enough to pull this off. When we got to the end of Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 we calculated our score but it felt like a flat, empty thing. How could a number really capture what had happened? A long running character died for that number and it's just a number? Was it okay to sacrifice South America to make the number bigger? The legacy format seems like one really open to having a 'result' rather than a 'winner' because so many actions throughout the games are contributing to longer term things. When winning disappears players are free to argue the morality of sacrificing a few thousand members of the population of Cairo to ensure that they know who started this plague. Is a game really better for putting a number on those objectives and telling you which is more important, or would it be better to let players decide which objectives they think are meaningful and play (even play at cross purposes) to work towards them?

Some games have completely arbitrary objectives. The ending to Tales of the Arabian Nights has almost never been satisfying. The points goal seems arbitrary and almost completely divorced from the rest of the game that it almost always ends in an "Oh, you won" rather than any sort of climax. Not to say it doesn't have high points, but those happened ten minutes ago to a player with no chance of winning but whose epic journey is complete. There might be a call for games using results rather than victory where the best algorithm the designer can come up with makes the players less good at deciding who won than the players were without it.

You couldn't just strip it out though - a 'result' over 'winner' game isn't just defined by the absence of a mechanic for declaring a winner, but also by the presence of mechanics that make it possible for people to assess their performance and the performance of others in a more naturalistic way. That's just as tough a job as designing a scoring mechanism - games that use it as an "easy way out" and just write "vote for the winner" on the last page tend to be rightly decried as lazy and tend not to be much fun.

I can think of a lot of very successful computer games that operate on this sort of basis, but I don't think the seminal boardgame that totally nails this sort of gameplay exists yet, but I'd be interested to play it some day.
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Mon Jul 2, 2018 10:13 am
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Small Boxes and Efficient Components

Greg
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Last night I was introduced to a series of games by Oink Games. I didn't get on with all of them, but came away with the impression that for each of them there would be someone who did. One of the things that really stood out for me was the physical efficiency of these games. Take a look at one:

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That might seem like quite a lot of counters to pile into a box atop that hand of cards - but that's only because most of the cards aren't pictured. The game has a 45 card deck, it's just not pictured in the photo. The thing is practically a TARDIS.

This is interesting as a publisher and a designer. Lets talk publisher first. Generally I've launched games on Kickstarter, but have tried to get a few of them into distribution to some extent. One of the strange things about distribution in the UK is that big boxes sell games. There are people who very vocally hate opening a game to find the box is mostly insert and the game could've been fit into a box a fraction of the size, but they don't reflect what the average gamer actually does when they walk into a game shop. Publishers, distributors and stores know it to the point that it's part of the conversation. I've been flat out told "This is a great game, but it needs a bigger box to sell itself." I'd always conceptualised this as one of the differences between Kickstarter games and traditional games - in the former creators ask themselves "How tightly can I pack this in? The smallest box is the easiest to ship box" and in the latter "How big can I make this before someone complains? Its essentially an advert and it needs to grab someone's attention next to all of the other adverts."

I'm told it's characteristic of the Japanese market that "compact" is always a selling point and products developed their first are typically as small as they can be while remaining functional. I've never made a formal study of it or spoken to Japanese distributors so I'm not sure to what extent that it's true - but whether related to a specific market or not there's definitely a sense that this line of games has been built to be as physically compact as possible.

I think this sort of compactness is generally desirable. It's less wasteful and it makes it easier to carry a game in a pocket rather than a bag. It is the sort of thing that's good for everyone but disappears in a "tragedy of the commons" kind of a way once the market gets involved. I'd love to see some mechanism that made it easier for more publishers to go down this route successfully.

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As a designer this sort of compactness is interesting because it requires the designer to get as much as possible out of their components. Despite this the components of these games never feel busy. Take In a Grove here, which is about identifying a murderer, as an example:

The round counters indicate how many guesses you have remaining before an incorrect. They also indicate if you've previously guessed correctly or incorrectly. They also indicate if you've ever been successfully bluffed by someone who's (probably) deliberately made an incorrect guess in the hopes you'd copy them and lose. You can tell how well you're doing by counting how many counters you have. They are coloured circles with two states.

The people counters indicate who the murderer is. They also are the suspects for who the murderer might be. They're also your private information about the murderer from which other players must try to derive your secret information. They also indicate whether the highest or lowest scoring character will be the murderer this round. One will also be the victim. They are a silhouette with a single number on.

This sort of design is testament to how much a designer can get out of a simple component, by making use of every attribute. A component can have almost no information on it, but can convey a wealth of different states by where it is on the table, its orientation, whether its face up or face down, whether counters are placed next to it, who's looked at it.

This sort of game is a challenge and while the nature of the game I'm currently working on will not be to meet it, that doesn't mean I can't learn something from the design to take with me.

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I'm once again working on Genesis, a game in which players are gods and pick three concepts to be the world they want to build. The theme initially carries well, players like being able to pronounce they are the god of Destruction, Chaos and Death or Drink, Fate and Love - but a theme can only carry a game so far, the gameplay needs to be solid too.

The game certainly has its fans, there are players who keep trying to get me to come up with new editions and push the game further, who can't get enough plays. However it has a relatively huge attrition rate in the first game. People love it when they've played 3 or 4 times, but most people don't enjoy the first game and a fair portion of them will walk away and never look back. That's a huge problem since it is true of literally every game that more people play a first game than a second game. Essentially it's unapproachable.

The main cause for this is that to some extent it's a bluffing and prediction game, you simultaneously pick heroes and reveal them together. You want your hero to win so want to pick someone who's a match for what you think your opponent is going to play.

If every card has dozens of icons and a custom special ability that's got its own timing rules and is different to every other card that offers fantastic play and counterplay opportunities. It also makes the information density such that most new players are essentially playing the first few games almost entirely at random until they've had the opportunity to learn the deck.

The challenge is to streamline the components and rules to the point that a new player has some idea what a card does and how it'll interact with things an opponent might play (and to have some grasp of what an opponent might play). However it is to do this without losing what makes the game special: That a god of a particular aspect will uniquely be able to access some asymmetrical power that others players can't.

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I'm on the way there, the core of the solution seems to be "Here are some standard icons which mean stuff. They do what you might expect. This guy makes people with bitey faces take -3. Highest number wins." Then each type of god gets an extra icon that does something different, you tell everyone else what your three special icons are at the start of the game. Now cards more cleanly communicate what they do and players aren't waiting until a card is played to find out what their opponents special trick is and can reasonably attempt to predict and counteract it.

I question whether I could go further. Characters have an icon and a number. Do we really *need* both? Or could abilities target based on the number? Or could the winner be determined by icon in a rock-paper-scissors way without the number?

Perhaps not. There'll be a level of complexity that's necessary for the different types of god to feel meaningful as what they are - love must feel like love, chaos must feel like chaos. On the other hand, perhaps it is possible. Maybe just one of those things can carry the weight of the rest of the game. I will probably end up reverting my changes but making the best games means exploring every avenue. I enjoyed last nights small box efficient games so I feel inspired to try.
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Mon Jun 25, 2018 10:24 am
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Orbit

Greg
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I ain'tn't dead!

I've been missing for months because my spine exploded and left me unable to walk or do very much of anything. It's not the first time it's happened, it probably won't be the last. I'm bored of it. You're bored of it. Let's get on with talking about games!

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After a long absence I'd like to come back with something positive for someone else, so since I was at the UK Games Expo (Running roleplaying games for children - who are vicious!) and spent a fair bit of time at the Playtest UK Stand I thought I'd take some time to analyse the game design decisions in what I thought was the best prototype I played all weekend (including my own!).

Orbit: The International Space Race is a game in development by Juniper Games. You play as a national space agency interested in building rockets and flying out to our solar system to explore planets and do science.

Each turn you do one thing: Upgrading technology, accepting missions, building a rocket or launching a rocket. Then all of your existing rockets barrel haplessly through space in whichever direction you launched them. You can steer a little, but doing so uses up fuel and your ships carry very very little of it. If you plan to land on a planet and then return to Earth you have just enough fuel to change course 0 times so you'd better aim in the right direction first time.

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You get points for each thing (Land on this planet, orbit that planet, etc) that you do. You also get a free upgrade if you do it first. You might have missions that give bonuses for taking particular actions or taking particular actions first.

When everyone's had a turn the planets all orbit the sun, as planets tend to, so the relationship between your launchpad and your target is constantly changing.

So what makes this game work?

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I've argued before that meaningful choice is critical to good game design and Orbit offers plenty of choices. Very often you can get the first one to a place by going there now - getting the free upgrade for getting there first - but you could do using less fuel if you wait for the planets to align - leaving you more fuel to orbit and then land and generally do more stuff and pick up more points when you get there.

The "What to do on your turn" also matters. The upgrade options are all meaningful - you always *want* your ships to build faster and move faster and carry more fuel and score more points - but you upgrade those things one at a time. All of these are balanced against other actions, perhaps the best course is not to upgrade at all but to build and launch as many ships as you physically can with no regard for quality.

Missions do well here too. You start with a couple of "Do X first" missions which inclines you to get going and make sure you do the thing before anyone else and pick up the bonus. However you also might want to draw more missions so that you know what you're trying to achieve before you launch your first ship or choose your first upgrade. The extra missions you can draw can be worth more points but may be harder (possibly involving multiple planets) and come with a penalty if you fail to achieve them.

In the time I played I took very few "automatic" turns, finding something interesting to think about more often than not.

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The mechanics fit together well with the theme.

As an abstract mathematical concept "Get to these places while everything is moving relative to each other all the time" has the attributes necessary to make a good game - but orbitals theme makes it feel right and natural. You never feel cheated that your objective moved further away because your objective is Jupiter and it moved round the sun in the same direction it did last turn and that's what gas giants are supposed to do.

What could be seen as a convoluted series of mechanics in abstract terms are easy to learn. "Your piece gets free moves if its in study mode, but switching to study mode costs one of your steering opportunities per trip" sounds like a mess of exceptions. "Your ship moves with the planet if it's in orbit, but establishing an orbit costs one fuel" is obvious. I'm not sure if the designer even bothered to mention that you moved with a planet if you're in orbit or landed on it - or if we all just assumed the rule because it's so intuitive that you would!

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Something that might not have come across so far in my description is that the game is quick! You do one thing on your turn, it takes seconds to do. Then all of your ships fly on, predominantly in the way you already told them to. The turns just fly by.

A game like this could be in danger of creating a large downtime problem. Interactivity is limited to "being first" or "not being first" so you don't do a lot during someone else's turn. That would be frustrating if the turns were long, but I found they were suitably short. I also didn't notice the first half of them because I was busy going "Okay if I build this turn I can launch next turn and Earth will be there, so if I head towards the edge of the solar system then I'll intercept Neptunes orbit in three turns by which point Neptune will be there - so I need to be a turn slower or spend fuel to turn to face it. Spending the fuel is bad, but I'll pass Saturns orbit in two turns and it'll be right there so I'll score points for a flyby if I do it this way..."

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Do I have any concerns about the game? Sure! It's in playtesting after all so there are bound to be rough spots around the edges.

The "First to X" obejctives can be a bit unsatisfying in a game with no randomness. If another player decides to go there first and is in the right place in the steating order there is literally nothing you can do to stop them getting there first. If the game needs a mechanical tune up somewhere, a stronger system for resolving what happens when several players reach the same planet on the same turn would be where I'd start.

It's also in danger because it has low randomness and low interaction. The planets move at a fixed speed and direction, your ships fly a predictable distance, other player's actions cannot prevent (or even inconvenience) your ship building and movement. Given that it might be that if you become experienced at the game you start planning all of your moves in the first few turns and don't make any meaningful decisions for the rest of it.

The tools that the designers have to prevent this from happening are the "First to X" objectives and the "First to X" free upgrades. If the bonus points for the initial objectives and the amount of advantage that getting those free upgrades provides are significant enough then every game will be different. The "initial objective" randomiser pushing all players in a different direction and the "first to X" restriction then causing those initial moves to have a knock on impact on what players are willing to do for the rest of the game could drive every game to be different. An important part of the game's success will be how well the team balances those elements.

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Overall I was enjoyed the game and was delighted to play something that didn't feel like a slight variation on something I'd played before. If you want to check it out their website is here and I'm sure they'll be trying to get everyone's attention sometime down the line

If you went to the UK Games Expo and tried anything good drop a comment and let me know what I should be keeping an eye on!
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Mon Jun 11, 2018 3:33 pm
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For Example

Greg
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I've started playing Blades in the Dark recently and it's amazing! So I thought I'd dedicate some time to dissecting the most inconsequential part of my experience, because it happens to be of the most relevant to writing board games.

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The Blades in the Dark book gives the image above (or something similar to it) as part of an example sheet on how skills work. This is used for a few examples, but the one that stuck out was the one illustrating that when you try to resist something you resist using a skill category - rather than a skill. So you never roll "Resist on Skirmish" you instead roll "Resist on Prowess".

In this case two dice.

It turned out that a couple of us had skimmed the rules and nobody had read them in detail. We'd both seen that example - that setup means a person has two dice for a prowess roll - and thought that we knew the rule.

It meant that your prowess roll is equal to your best prowess skill.

It meant that your prowess roll is equal to the number of prowess skills you're trained in.

This encapsulates a very straightforward lesson about writing examples for rulebooks: As well as bearing in mind what the rule *is* and showing it clearly, you need to bear in mind what the rule *isn't* (but might be) and avoid creating ambiguity.

What other lessons might we take from rulebook examples?

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I often find a rule-example pair like this early in the rulebook:

"To roll an attribute, take a number of D6s equal to the attribute, roll them and add the two highest dice together.

Example: Gurk has a strength of four and attacks an orc. His player takes 4D6 and rolls them getting 2, 3, 5 and 5. This makes his roll 10, he delivers a critical hit and the orc takes 3 damage."

This sort of example tends to raise more questions than answers. It is demonstrating the rule it's associated with, but it's also demonstrating two other rules that haven't been introduced yet.

Why is it a critical hit? Because the total was double figures? Because it exceeded a target by some amount? Because the numbers used were a pair?

Why did the orc take 3 damage? Why not 2 or 4? Did the attribute roll decide that somehow? 3 was the highest number that didn't get used.

Which gives us a second thing to bear in mind: An example should only invoke rules that have been introduced in the rulebook before the example is given.

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If someone has only has examples they don't actually know the rule. So if a book contains something like:

"In this phase you prepare your buildings, so for example you may place the granary face down on the table."

Then the player actually has no idea what the rule is, though they might think they do. They know they *can* place a granary, but there are lots of things they don't know:

Can they place something they can't afford at the moment?
Can they place a second card and choose to build multiple things?
Can they place face up if they want to?
Do they have to place anything at all if they don't want to?

Learning rules this way is a bit like playing with a magic eight ball. You get a bunch of unconnected statements and if you're lucky you can draw some sort of narrative between them, but if you learn what you were trying to it's more luck than judgement.

The obvious lesson from this is that your example needs to be an example of a rule that you've expressed, rather than an alternative to expressing the rule in the first place.

The slightly less obvious lesson is that this only helps if the reader actually reads that rule before the example There's a graphic design problem in the way that a person's eye is lead around the page by paragraph formatting, coloured boxes and the like. There's also a rules writing issue in that people will more easily remember the first or last statement made in a given paragraph or section.

But we're moving away from examples to general rules writing, so let's just consider this: The presentation of an example should encourage a reader to examine it after the rule it is an example for.

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So we've talked about a lot of potential pitfalls and problems with examples, so to flip the question: Why bother? What makes a good example?

A good example will help a person to understand a rule and resolve any questions they have about it. As a designer it's not possible to predict every question a person might possibly have about how to play a game, but having a worked example makes it likely that a person can see the answer to their question without having to predict what it is.

Generating that sort of example isn't always easy, but having gone through the playtesting process will help. Considering some of the most common mistakes that are made by first time players and writing examples of the form "Here is the setup for the situation that most commonly leads to a mistake and here is the correct play."

Also avoiding talking about not just what happens, but why it must happen. For instance I've recently updated a SatW example to

"...The item that Amy receives from Phil is the NO/DK fanart, which sister America wants. As it will satisfy her character she must immediately place this item on America before the game continues..."

Stating only that the item is played, while technically correct, produces a less useful example, because it's less obvious whether Amy could have chosen not to play it or even if a person must play every item they draw right away.

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So to make a list:

Examples need to consider rules that may be, as well as rules that are.
They should only reference rules that have been mentioned so far.
An example can never be a replacement for a rule.
If an example is complicated, it should show "why" as well as "what"

There's a lot more that goes into selecting and writing good examples, but that's a good starting point. If nothing else it serves as an example for the sorts of things you might think about Happy gaming.
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Tue Sep 26, 2017 2:36 pm
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Special Rewards: Behind the Curtain

Greg
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Since my first Kickstarter campaign I've almost always had a pledge level that allows backers to create a card or other game element and add it to everyone's copy of the game. These are always marked so that purists can remove them, but I love doing it and backers seem to love it too. I've had some nice comments about how affordable I make it compared to other creators, so I wanted to go behind the curtain and talk about how these pledge levels happen and why they cost what they do.

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So, let's start with monetary costs since these are a lot less ambiguous than the other things we'll be discussing today.

In terms of manufacturing, adding a single card to a game tends to be fairly cheap on a "per game" level. I've got a quote here that charges $0.03 to add 10 cards, less than a cent per card. Of course we're making 2000 games so the total cost is $6 per card.

Then the card needs some art - this turns out to be more expensive than the manufacturing unless you're producing a lot of games. I've seen various quotes for card art ranging from $20 to $50. So it'd be feasible to have a "Get a card of your own into the game" pledge level for only $26 above a base pledge.

But wait - this approach doesn't quite work. If the KS just funds dead on its goal, the amount you need to pay in KS fees or towards the design of the game itself doesn't change. So if the pledge level is going to be a bigger % of the overall KS then it needs to cover proportionally more of these costs.

The safest assumption is probably that the costs unique to the special pledge level (manufacturing + art + shipping) are the same as the costs unique to any other pledge level (usually manufacturing + shipping) and then to set the costs proportionally. So if your base pledge level is £20 for a game that costs £15 to manufacture and ship and your special pledge level costs £30 to do then you'd need to charge £40 for it to stop it disrupting the rest of the project.

This sort of formula tends to result in a pledge level for a special card being about £50 give or take. So why does it tend to cost so much more than that? Is it because creators are greedy and swimming in money?

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No. No it is not. It's because they're looking for some coin to cover the non-material costs of such a reward.

The first is effort. When someone backs at a "create a card and add this to the game" level I'm probably committing at least an hour to dealing with that person. I need to find out what they want, have some back and forth over the best possible version of that. Possibly modify it slightly to fit the game better. The communicate all of that to the artist. It wouldn't be unreasonable to say "My time is worth £X/hour so I'm adding £X".

I don't do that partly because I'm happy to donate time to something that makes people happier, particularly backers who couldn't normally afford a custom level and partly because I enjoy doing it. Coming up for new stuff for a game together with a backer is fun It also improves the project as a whole - people adding things to the game for all players is grand.

The second is time. Everyone wants to deliver a campaign on time. Each custom backer creates an extra person in the delivery chain, which is another opportunity for something to go wrong and for the campaign to be delayed. This creates another incentive for creators to price their custom levels highly - if a person has spent a lot of money they're less likely to be inclined to fail to answer messages about what they want. That means less of an opportunity for delay.

Again, I handle this a little differently. The campaign page always includes a note to the effect of "If you don't tell me what you want within a month then I'll just guess." This guarantees that the project won't be delayed, at the cost of potentially upsetting a backer who didn't get what they were hoping for. I don't like upsetting people, but if the alternative is to disappoint every other person who funded a project I don't think it's unreasonable to do so.

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The final cost is quality. Everyone wants to put out the best game they possibly can. The average Kickstarter creator doesn't put their game up to fund until it's had hundreds of hours of playtesting and they're happy with how it works. A new card added by a backer will have far less testing and could bring the overall quality of the game down.

Now there are ways to mitigate this: A creator will often have tried a lot of different things in the course of making their game, so will have a fairly good idea of what sort of things work well or badly. In talking to the backer about their ideas it's usually possible to make suggestions that will compliment the existing design decisions in the game rather than rail against them.

The other alternative is to make the additional content optional. Finding a way to somehow indicate that a component is backer driven so that purists can remove it if they want to means that nobodies game will be worse for the extra content, so it can be easily removed.

Generally the most important measure to take is to consider what part of the game is most well suited to extra content. In some places a gain in variety will offset a loss in average quality, in others the overall contribution of a single card to a large deck will have a very limited opportunity to throw disrupt the game. If this step is done well then the level can maintain a lot of its benefits while mitigating its most important risks.

I don't think that this consideration has a big impact for the price a creator sets for a custom thing pledge level - but in some cases a high asking price may reflect a certain level of ambivalence on the part of the creator.

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So there you have it - those are all of the considerations that contribute to the cost of a "custom thing" pledge level and I think more importantly that need to be taken into account when determining the wisdom of including one. Have fun shaping the world and happy gaming

Also check out SatW on Kickstarter, just one week to go
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Thu Sep 21, 2017 2:00 pm
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Cooperative Character Abilities

Greg
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Sorry there was no post last week - I was launching the Scandinavia and the World Kickstarter. If you enjoy this blog then please take a look and see if it looks like your sort of game. In return I promise not to talk about it for the rest of the post and tackle a game design issue instead. Today's topic: Special abilities for characters in cooperative games.

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Ability design addresses a variety of problems. The weight that you assign to these aspects of your design will influence the character of your game, so it's worth considering.

Theme: An ability can carry the idea of being this particular member of a team, helping a strongly thematic game to deliver on its premise.
Variety (individual): An ability can make a character feel sufficiently different to play that playing the game again is a fresh experience, making the game more replayable.
Variety (group): An ability can contribute to an environment in which the combination of abilities available noticeably distorts he game, making the game more replayable even for someone who's kept the same character.
Contribution: A good cooperative game should give everyone the feeling of contributing something meaningful. A good ability will give a player an opportunity to make a meaningful contribution that couldn't have been done by just anyone.
Coordination: A good cooperative game makes it feel meaningful to cooperate. So a well designed ability should reward players for coordinating its use rather than simply maximising their own effectiveness.
Isolation: This may sound strange, but it's also good for an ability to involve some degree of isolation in its planning or use. Cooperative games can suffer from one player telling everyone what to do, so abilities that counteract that are good.

These can also all be inverted. So for instance rather than rewarding successful coordination, you can have an ability that penalises a failure of coordination.

Since the answer to "What should you do about this?" is so unsatisfying ("It depends on the needs of your game and there are lots of ways to do things") we'll instead take a look at existing abilities and analyse them in the context of these six factors.

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First up: The Space Alert advanced teleporter.

In this game players are coordinating to rescue a space station from at least reasonably likely doom. There are six spaces on the board (seven if flying around outside counts) and the advanced teleporter can execute their ability to have the following effect:

"All players in one of the four corner rooms of the board are immediately teleported to the opposite corner."

Theme: This is pretty strong, a teleporter fits the scifi theme and being able to get somewhere quickly matches the essence of teleportation. It certainly captures the feeling of rapid movement since it's allowing several players to each get three turns of actions (in a 12 turn game) instantaneously.
Variety (individual): The Space Alert unique abilities are "once per game" affairs, which makes it hard for them to lend individual variety. 11/12 turns you'll probably do the same thing you would've done with a different ability...
Variety (group): ...However if you have four players and every player kicks out an ability that affects the whole group then you'll spend a third of your game dealing with the repercussions. So it could contribute to group variety along with three similar powers.
Contribution: Since so much of Space Alert boils down to "Can we do the thing in time?" being able to zap several other players into position can feel like the move that saved the day.
Coordination: This is an example of both positive and negative coordination. You could use the ability just to get yourself somewhere quickly, but you get more out of it by moving several players usefully at once. On the other hand the teleport is not optional - you could easily ruin everyone else's plans by failing to coordinate. This ability passes this test more strongly than any other I'm going to discuss.
Isolation: Space Alert depends upon a tight time limit to encourage players to make their own decisions. Someone else could try to demand the teleporter use their power, but the game makes it hard for them to meaningfully do it. Ultimately the isolation value of this ability is driven by the rest of the game design, rather than the other way around.

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Next Up: Fury of Dracula

Now this isn't a cooperative game, it's a many vs one game, which has different characteristics. In terms of ability design, writing abilities for the many (in a many vs one game) is very similar to a cooperative game - since you're looking to do almost exactly the same set of things.

Lord Godalming has two abilities: Roll two dice vs minions and reroll the train die. Arguably he has a third ability in having a higher than average maximum health.

Theme: It's been a long long time since I read Dracula so it's hard to comment on how well it works relative to the source material. Two dice is a significant advantage in the combat system, so it feels "strong". It's harder for the train reroll to make you feel wealthy though - it feels like a lord would've have a 1 in 3 chance of having the conversation "I'm a very wealthy man, can this train possibly go faster?" "Ah, wealthy you say? In that case you're banned, get off the train."
Variety (individual): The power of these abilities is noticeable, but it doesn't create a difference in kind. A train reroll means you notice the difference between East and West Europe more (The only difference being the speed of the trains on a maximum roll) but at the end of the day you'll take very similar moves no matter which character you are. So much of the game is finding Dracula and closing off his escape routes that you'll much more often experience "Your most important attribute is being in position X" than "Your most important attribute is anything special you can do."
Variety (group): This game uses the same four characters each time, so this attribute doesn't apply.
Contribution: With no easy way to predict exactly where the physical fights are (as opposed to other hazards) it feels like more luck than judgement when the ability matters. The game gives plentiful opportunities to make a meaningful contribution, but being Lord Godalming rarely contributes.
Coordination: These abilities don't directly influence other players. There may be edge cases where a bit of coordination will make it so that you take the train while someone else takes the road rather than the other way around (which is a bit more reliable owing to your reroll). Overall though, coordinating ability use is not particularly rewarded.
Isolation: The ability does nothing to stop one player trying to calculate the optimal moves and disseminating them. However, again the design of the game has an impact here. Dracula is sitting right there. Listening to everything you say. Is it really better to state your plans out loud than to trust your friends to make good decisions?

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The third and final choice for this post: Battlestar Galactica

This also isn't a cooperative game. Since this was a whistlestop tour of ideas I wanted to touch base with other types of game that rely on similar things in their abilities but also to highlight how they make things different. BSG is a traitor game, which means it plays a lot like a cooperative game, but ideal abilities will have an additional attribute: They will allow a player to hurt the groups chance of success without it being obvious.

Roslin has two abilities and a drawback - her main "use every turn" ability is: When she draws a crisis card she picks two and places one of her choice on the bottom of the deck. Once per game she can draw a bunch of (essentially) major political action cards and choose one. Finally she needs to discard cards to use room actions.

Theme: Politics, religion and and illness hit the major notes for putting her character across. The connection between the theme and mechanics on two of them are a bit weak though, a terminal illness doesn't make activating a location particularly more stressful than any other sort of meaningful activity.
Variety (individual): Activating locations and dealing with crises are core parts of the game, modifying how these happen make her play differently to other characters. There's also a social dynamic added by choosing a crisis in that players can't see what you discard, but what happens is likely to be closely scruitinised.
Variety (group): A game with Roslin in doesn't provide a huge difference in kind in what the group as a whole can or cannot do. Certainly there will be times that she's very relevant but I don't hear BSG players say "Do we have Roslin?" in the same way Pandemic players say "Do we have the medic?"
Contribution: Choosing a crisis is impactful, but in quite a low key way. A player might not see much recognition for burying the crisis that wins the game (they might not even know they've done it) but the ability still permits a meaningful contribution. The once per game power provides a lot of opportunities that can have some spectacular results and scores much more strongly in this category.
Coordination: This is probably the weakest aspect of a set of abilities that otherwise tick all of the boxes. The crisis choice can be meaningful in terms of selecting a crisis that's easily dealt with by the combination of other abilities and assets around the table but there isn't really anything there that another player could do much to take into account in their actions.
Isolation: All three of these abilities need to be used without the other players (who aren't allowed to see the combination of cards your choosing from - either to pick one or to discard) so this is character that's exceptionally difficult to dictate to.

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So what do we take from these examples for our own cooperative abilities? I think there are four important things to bear in mind:

Relative power is important. The Teleporter and Lord Godalming both had movement powers - but the Teleporters ability was worth three turns of movement while Godalming's is worth one at the very best (and might just fail). If an ability is to feel impactful its worth relative to not having the ability needs to be carefully considered.

Differences in kind are important. Rerolls and extra dice are nice, they can let you win where victory is otherwise improbable. On the other hand using a super charged version of the presidents ability while not being the president can let you win where victory is otherwise impossible.

Coordination is bidirectional. An ability that lets you take others skills into account and play a move based on coordinating with them does not guarantee that they can meaningfully coordinate with you. Ideally a cooperative ability will work both ways around.

Secrets are useful. If an ability either relies on hidden information (cards in hand) or creates it (draw two cards and...) then the individual will make the decision rather than having their ability co-opted by the table as a whole.

There are other factors that make good cooperative ability design. The main one I didn't happen to touch upon with these examples is synergy (abilities directly or indirectly having a multiplicative effect when applied together) but I'm sure there are more. What's the greatest cooperative ability ever written?

Play nicely together, backstab rarely but well and happy gaming
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Tue Sep 12, 2017 1:32 pm
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