Jeff's World of Game Design

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Once more unto the narrow gate dear friends

Jeff Warrender
United States
Averill Park
New York
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In alpha-testing the theme park game that somewhat prompted this series about gateway games, I realized there's one aspect of these games that we may not have touched on explicitly, though we've surely talked about such things in the past.

Recall that "IndianaJonny's rule" (tobacco) was that, in a true gateway game, you're in a single gear for the entire game: same turn mechanic, same scoring rules, nothing changes mid-stream. A corollary of this is that the basic strategy is easy to discover. There are some heuristics that are evident practically upon inspection.

There are some proto photos of my game below, and you can see what a player's area looks like post-game: your "people cards" have some tokens on them and it's most-of-the-least scoring. This is intuitive -- you want everyone to be happy -- but more importantly, it's easy to see what you're trying to do. "Frans isn't having as much fun, better get him on a ride he wants, stat!"

Simple heuristics are attractive because they fulfill our goal to give players fun in the form of making them feel smart. It's even better if the game has some depth and better heuristics can be discovered, of course, but at a minimum, the entry-level heuristics should be easy to spot.

Let's look at our "Big Four plus one"


Settlers: A pretty straightforward little engine builder since there are only a small number of parts from which the engine can be constructed.

Carcassonne: The "intermediate-level heuristics" of how to contend for farm scoring and how big to push your luck in expanding a city take a couple of plays to grok, but the baseline of placing stuff to make points are quite easy to spot.

Pandemic: Assuming a group with no familiarity with the game at all (i.e. no quarterback), the heuristics here are a bit clunky: we need to get four matching cards in the hands of the same person, which means we need to coordinate our movements to get that person those cards. It's clunky because the action point allowance system feels like "I should just do something that's helpful, like go here and remove some cubes". Harmonizing everything takes a little bit of brainpower but maybe not too much.

Ticket to Ride: Ticket scoring seems straightforward because you just do what the tickets say, but of course the actual entry-level heuristic is knowing how to pick tickets that harmonize, and then mid-level brings in the blocking. The turn mechanic is so simple that a lot of TTR's faults are easily forgiven, I think.

Wingspan, which I've finally played, is once again the odd duck here, as I don't think its heuristics are at all simple. The scoring rules are too complicated; it's not just point salad, the ways of getting points are all very different. But insofar as every bird scores points, every player will end the game with a positive score and maybe that makes you feel smart.

A few others:

Dominion: Big Money is reasonably easy to spot and to set up; maybe not for a first time player who is not a gamer but you can fumble upon Big Money unintentionally, it's that easy.

Splendor: Turning on your engine also turns on your scoring, and the personality tiles are a bright blazing beacon saying "grab these, grab these!" which is quite a helpful way of making a game's heuristics easy to spot.

No Thanks!: There's some subtlety here in the way that tokens give negative points, but in general the basic heuristics are easy: if the card has more positive points than it has tokens, I don't want it. The trick becomes, sometimes I have to take it anyway, and learning when that is.

Tiny Towns: This one is tricky. On the one hand, the cards tell you what scores points, so it's simple. On the other hand, the heuristics are entirely about solving the scoring puzzle, as quickly as possible, so you know how to combo things and in what order. But there are some general heuristics that transcend any game's particular puzzle so I'd say this one mostly meets our criterion.

From gallery of jwarrend

From gallery of jwarrend


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