Game Nuggets

Do you find game design fascinating, and want more in-depth nuggets and tips? If yes, then welcome to the Game Nuggets blog. I'm Gerald the designer of the soon to be released Banker of the Gods.

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No Luck Means No Game?

A. Gerald Fitzsimons
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(Image Credit: jsper)

Is it unintentionally misleading to believe that there are zero luck board games on the market? I believe it can hurt game designers that are just starting out if they believe this and try to make their games truly luck-free. By luck free I don't mean games with extremely low luck.

A game is very hard to define. In this article I am referring to standard board games, not puzzles or activities. Without some luck a board game may not hold replay value, and maybe not even feel like a game, as a result will never be published. Probably only playtesters and game designers have ever experienced this. I doubt there would be anything like this in the top 1,000 published games on BGG. And, yes, even that game has luck! Puerto Rico! Maybe even...... dare I say..... Chess! No I can't say Chess, can I?

Where's my coffee?

In Puerto Rico a number of plantation tiles (Corn, Sugar, Coffee, Tobacco, Indigo) are randomly drawn each round and you choose from what is available. If you really wanted coffee and it appears, that's good luck. However, if some else takes the "grab a plantation tile" action before you do they will get first pick and could take that coffee tile. Bad luck! If they don't take your coffee do you consider yourself fortunate?

Settle for anything less?


(Image Credit: Toynan)


Imagine in Puerto Rico if you could just get any plantation tile you wanted every time you wanted it, and do the same with everything in the game. No luck at all or player randomness. Every game you play could feel the same and lack tension or high moments.

You would lose the interesting challenge of what to do if coffee was never available to you. The way it was designed, with luck, without guarantees makes you need to think of a backup plan, or have you decided to wait a few rounds for coffee to reappear before you give up on it? When your coffee suddenly pops out again, you think do you need to choose that "grab a plantation tile" action before someone else does. You take a breathe! Recover from one of the greatest moment of your life, and then take that action. Your heart settles. Officially this action is known as the "Settler" for this very reason... most likely.

Build yourself up


(Image Credit: GeoMan)

The majority of buildings in Puerto Rico act as power upgrade for you. At the very start of the game you could look at those powers available and make a plan A and plan B for the entire game, build your strategy around what upgrades you want to get. You would still have to hope that the other players don't buy them before you can afford to. Will you be lucky enough that it will still be there later? To mitigate the luck factor should you go straight for it when you get enough money and neglect your engine? Should you hold off on forming a concrete strategy until you buy your first building? Imagine if there as no luck, and you could just get any building you wanted. You might have the same boring game every time you play.

Use luck

Is the ability to work with luck and handle bad luck what makes a skilled player?


(Image Credit: zombiegod)

Perhaps at a grand master level Chess does not end due to luck but rather a lack of focus on one players part, or it ends in a stalemate, or even due to incompetence for not seeing an obvious move 23 steps ahead of time.

What about low level and medium level Chess games? Do they involve some luck and randomness created by player interaction? In games of Chess by non-Jedi folk that I've experience and witnessed I have seen luck play a role.


(Image Credit: Stronghold Games)

Imagine you were playing your friend Clint at Chess. You made a bad move that would put you in check, but Clint didn't notice it. You're off the hook. You feel lucky. But just then, Clint leaned across the table, stared you in the eyes and said, "Do you feel lucky, punk! Well do you?". "Hey Clint", you said, "maybe you'll enjoy playing something with more theme, and a bit more luck than Chess like Carson City, or the critically acclaimed The Great Western Trail? Would you like that Clint???". Clint furious that you've typecast him, again, narrows his eyes as they turned to flames! You ended up losing that game out of fear and nervousness. Then you realize that Clint didn't win the game due to luck, he won due to look.

Meta skills can mitigate luck in low luck and high luck games by gamers that play the players.

With Chess safely out of the way we can relax with Pandemic. Pandemic wonderfully creates luck through the draw of the cities deck and the player deck. Interestingly the bad luck created when more epidemic cards show up actually increases the level of skillful play in Pandemic.

Using bad luck in Pandemic



(Image Credit: DancerInDC)

The play in Pandemic can become more skillful if you examine the cities in the discard pile, after an epidemic, before shuffling them and placing them back face-down on top of the cities deck. This is perfectly legal to do. You know the selection of cities that will appear next but not in what order.

You look at the board state. See which cities are at red alert status (3 cubes on them, ready for an outbreak). On your next move you can either choose to do the safest thing by removing cubes from red alert cities, or you can push your luck, take the risk, to perform an action more effective to bring you closer to winning the game.

Those red alert cities might appear next, or they might be on the bottom of the cards that you just shuffled and put back on top. Without that uncertainty, that good luck or bad luck, you would not get the highs when your risks prove that you are a genius, and you would not feel the lows when you do something dumb.

You'd just feel cold, like a lost captain in the arctic looking for love.
Spoiler (click to reveal)
The Terror, a TV show on Prime Video. Not a creation of my imagination I'm afraid


Finding the right amount of luck in ancient stock markets


(Image Credit: Banker of the Gods)

I felt inspired to write about luck as my upcoming ancient stock market worker-placement game, Banker of The Gods, requires players to gauge, through deduction, the market trends and find suitable commodities to invest in before the next round starts. It couldn't be 100% obvious, and it couldn't be too luck based. Finding the balance and perfect amount of luck doesn't come easy. It takes playtesting. Over 100 playtests for Banker of the Gods, and the expertise of a well known developer that worked on big hits like Betrayal Legacy, Downforce, Charterstone and a lot of other successful games, JR Honeycutt and his development company Waitress Games. I believe games need some luck to make them games worth playing more than once, unlike a puzzle. But you don't get lucky finding the right amount, it takes hard work.
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Mon Apr 1, 2019 6:22 pm
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Problems and Dilemmas Equal Great Gameplay

A. Gerald Fitzsimons
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Have you noticed that a lot of the top ranked games have mandatory and voluntary problems? New game designers when starting out often create games without any problems or dilemmas. They may create an interesting theme, however you can get any thing you want, any time you need it. Perfect! But it mostly creates boring gameplay. Experienced game designers create problems for players.

The Wonderful Problems Of Ticket To Ride

Let's look at a best selling game, Ticket To Ride. You start with mandatory problems called tickets. If you don't complete these tickets, connect city A to city B, you get negative points that can make you lose the game. During the game you can pick up even more tickets of your own free will. Why would you do such a crazy thing? Well, if you do complete those tickets you add those extra points instead of deducting them. They can cause you to win the game.

In Ticket to Ride you even have imaginary problems that might never happen. You constantly imagine your preferred route will be blocked.

Lost Cities

In Lost Cities you create columns of your own cards that represent archaeological expeditions. The mandatory problem is that each expedition you start costs -20 points. The cards go from 2 to 10. If your row contains 2, 3, 4, and 7 value cards you score is 16 points minus 20 for a grand total of -4 points for that expedition. Putting together an expedition is risky.

In Lost Cities you can also choose to play special cards that double or triple your expedition score, but you can only play them at the very start of creating that column. It can change a -20 into a minus -40 or even a -60. If your score is positive you get a big payoff. The designer, Reiner Knizia, gets your heart pounding by allowing you to choose the problem of starting an expedition with a minus 60 score, and it feels fantastically wise when you turn that into a big positive score.

You create even more problems by holding on to useless cards. You want to hold on to a useless green 8 card instead of getting better ones for yourself, because when you place that card face-up on to the discard pile your opponent can then take it on their turn, and add it to their long green expedition. It clogs up your hand, which has a limit, along with the other "useless" cards that you are keeping, waiting, hoping, for your opponent's expedition to go higher than the numbers you are holding on to, so you can safety discard it when it's finally useless for them too.

Who's Fault Is It?

Mandatory problems make a game interesting, and optional problems are tantalizing. If optional problems become catastrophic, who is to blame? The game, the player, the designer? The player of course. Well, that's what the player thinks.


Problems In Many Forms



In Scythe if you produce too many resources you're tempting attacks (even if it's just in your imagination). The attackers have the problem of losing popularity. At the start you can't cross rivers and only move across 1 hex. In Tzolk'in and Agricola getting more workers means you need to produce more food. In Viticulture how will you best synergize your random combination of Visitors, Vines, and Wine Orders.

Next time you play, look out for your favorite problems.
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Wed Jan 16, 2019 5:13 pm
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The Hope of Winning Mechanism

A. Gerald Fitzsimons
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We often hear the question "Does this game have a catch-up mechanism?". if the answer is "no", most people and most publishers are disappointed as they can imagine a friend stuck in last place, way behind feeling crummy like there is no point in continuing to play. Nothing they can do will let them catch-up that point gap. They feel hopeless. But a game doesn't need a catch-up mechanism if it has, what I like to call, a Hope of Winning mechanism. Some popular games have this but not everyone realize it.

A Hope of Winning mechanism keeps all players in the game psychologically. There is no feeling of being too far behind, no feeling of pointlessness, no feeling of hopelessness. Ticket to Ride has it, Quadropolis has it, Wingspan has it (a new game by Stonemaier and Elizabeth Hargrave), and other highly ranked games have.

How to create it



In Ticket to Ride and Wingspan, players start with a goal card or multiple goal cards. These are private/hidden information and give you points at the end of the game if you meet certain thresholds. In Wingspan you are never sure what your friend's scores are, until the game has ended. In Ticket to Ride you could be in last place on the score track by a large amount of points. That is fine as you have a few tickets, a few goals cards, that will give you a great amount of points at the end. In Ticket to Ride you can also create long routes to gain extra points and you hope your competitors somehow got blocked from completing all their tickets. In both games you always have a sense that you could win. Right until the end you feel like you have a chance to win.

Giving all players, especially the one that could be in last position, a psychological feeling that they might still win counters the problems of games that need catch-up mechanisms. Most catch-up mechanisms tend to "fix" hopelessness by punishing skilled players. In 7 Wonders if you feel you are behind at the start of the last round you still have hope that you could get the best cards of the last and highest scoring round. You might even get some perfect guild cards. Guild cards act like goal cards and only appear in the last round.

Fighting?



What about fighting games? Fighting games thrive on direct player conflict and knocking down the leader which acts like a catch-up mechanism. That was not added to a fighting game to fix a problem. It is a main feature of the game design. Small World creates a Hope of Winning situation by obfuscating victory points gained. Your victory points are coins. All coin values have the same back illustration. When you get coins you keep them face down. When you look at your opponents big pile of coins they could all be be tens, but you hope they're ones.

Game Design Hope

It's a problem when a game makes players want to stop playing by making them know they've already lost at the halfway mark. My hope as a gamer and designer is that "Hope of Winning" mechanisms are used more often than "standard" catch-up mechanisms. If a game makes all players feel interested and competitive right up until the end, every time, does it need punishing or unfairly rewarding catch-up mechanisms? I feel no, resist the popular term "catch-up" mechanism if you can, and your game design can.
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Wed Jan 2, 2019 1:40 pm
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WHY MATT LEACOCK DEVELOPS UGLY GAMES

A. Gerald Fitzsimons
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Matt Leacock is one of the most successful board game designers ever. He is the creator of the Pandemic series, the Forbidden series, and lots of other great games.

I was reading the book "Board Game Design Advice From The Best In The WorldBoard Game Design Advice From The Best In The World" by Gabe Barret and came across a piece of advice from Matt Leacock that really stood out.

Quote:
Matt said, "I over-invested in the visual design of my first self-published game (Lunatix Loop) and was reluctant to iterate on it since I was so attached to the artwork I had already created."


I also feel Matt was suggesting to keep your games ugly until the gameplay is great. Anyone who enjoys art or has money to pay an artist might have made this mistake in the past. I did with some of my earlier games. Now I design first drafts with cereal boxes.

Someone that spends time creating nice art first will most likely feel a stubborn yet subtle effect on their decisions. Decisions that require drastic changes. Your brain will trick you, create justifications not to make those big changes. You can feel this, unless someone has a super human ability for creating perfect games that don’t require changes or believes they have that ability.

I upgrade the prototypes to white label versions when big changes have been made, the game tests great, and it’s ready for blind playtesters. The final art is only created after a few more changes when the game is running smoothly and it gets high ratings from new blind playtesters.

If game designer believes they are unaffected by this problem and is actually willing to trash weeks worth of work, spent on art, then it is still not the best use of that person’s time or money. Tremendous time and effort would have been saved if the final art came last.

When it comes to successful publishers economy of scale changes things. Jamey Stegmaier, of Stonemaier Games, has an illustration created at the start to help inspire him. As a busy publisher Jamey does commission art on a number of games while they are still in development. Successful publishers can actually save time and money to move faster on the art and later scrap some of it, than waiting months to move to the next phase. The cost of being late to market is greater than a dozen or more illustrations going to waste.

However, successful publishers don’t create all of the final art before even testing a game without knowing if the gameplay is even good enough. That is a mistake made by some new game designers.

I always appreciate ways to improve the game design process. I wholeheartedly agree with Matt Leacock's designer viewpoint: that gameplay first and amazing art later is better for your game, your mental health, and your wallet.

P.S. I love the board art of Pandemic.
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Mon Oct 15, 2018 5:05 pm
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