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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:
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Stack and Attack

United Kingdom
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Today I'm going to take a look at Stack and Attack by Egra games. This is going to be a dual purpose post, partly it's here to pull apart the mechanics and design choices to see what we can learn about designing games and partly it's here to serve as a review to help people decide whether they like the game. This is the first time I've tried writing like this and I'm not sure if the format will work, but let's try it anyway and see how it goes.

A game's components set the scene; expectations are important and can do a lot to define the play experience before anyone gets started. I'm confident that there's nobody who looks at a box marked "stack and attack" complete with pictures of cavemen stacking rocks and flinging them at each other and isn't sure what might be expected of them in this game. I've no eye for art (I pretty much ignored it and tore open the rules) but the folks I played with reckoned that its simplicity was charming and appropriate to the tone of the game. Overall the expectation created is that this will be a light hearted affair and promises the opportunity to topple the results of other people's labour, which I'm pretty sure is all that anyone really wants out of life.

The mechanics are similarly straightforward. Each player has a deck of rocks that they own and a stack that they're trying to build, in the centre of the table is a quarry full of rocks for the players to acquire as the game goes on. On their turn a player receives four action points, which can be used in one of three ways. They can pay the cost of a rock faceup in the quarry to add it to their discard pile. They can pay the cost of a rock in their hand to add it to the top of their stack. They can pay the cost of a rock in their hand to throw it at an opponent's stack. Once they're done they shuffle their hand and discard pile into their deck, draw a new hand and play passes to the next player. As the game goes on and stacks get bigger the proud owners of tall towers gain additional cards and action points to play with each turn.

Rocks come in two shapes and three sizes. Round rocks have large bonuses to throwing, but create less stable towers that are easy to attack. Flat rocks create stable towers that are hard to attack, but are less useful to throw. As rocks get larger they take more action points to use and can't reach parts of a stack above a certain height, but they contribute more to the height of a stack they're placed in and provide larger bonuses to attack and defence. Finally some cards in the quarry are not rocks at all, but special actions, which cost no action points to play and allow players to achieve a variety of special effects when played.

At this point in reading the rules it felt like there was a mismatch between mechanics and theme. A lot seemed driven towards providing a light, quick play experience that doesn't require much thought. The game seems centred around a deckbuilding mechanic, which while traditionally quick, often lends itself to more strategic play. The choice of types of rocks and actions cards seemed significant and reading the rules it felt like it might be viable to play in a few different styles. Ultimately this proved incorrect, I'd made the mistake of underestimating the impact of shuffling the discard pile into the deck every turn. In a traditional deckbuilder a player's deck is shuffled when it runs out of cards, so if you build a deck containing a particular card you know you'll see it exactly once for each run through the deck. Reshuffling each turn emphasises the random factor, making it possible that a key card might not show up at all, or it might be seen every turn. Additionally, whenever you use a rock it will be removed from your deck, so it is challenging to build a consistent engine.

The rules for attacking another tower do a lot to shape the game. When a rock is thrown the attacker picks a target in the defenders stack. The attacker adds the offensive value of the thrown rock to the offensive value of the top 0-2 cards of their deck, the defender adds the defensive value of the target rock to the defensive value of all rocks stacked above it and the defensive value of the top 0-2 cards of their deck. In general players draw two cards, but should a deck run out, its owner is not permitted to shuffle it until the end of their turn, meaning that they are defenceless. The deterministic nature of the combat system mean that if a player has no cards left in their deck the other players can destroy their tower with impunity, making safe attack after safe attack.

This system has a couple of features. The first is that ganging up on someone is extremely effective. If the other three players in the game decide to reduce your tower to rubble they can do so, pretty much regardless of your own actions. Furthermore the timing of the attack phase gives the attacker a significant edge, as they are going to shuffle their deck in the very next phase, before anyone else has the opportunity to counterattack them, so they will almost always draw the maximum two cards. For competitive, strategic gamers these features will probably leech a lot of the fun out of the game, the notion that all of your actions so far in a game can be made irrelevant if the other players agree on it is something that does not sit well with that mindset. On the other hand casual gamers or families will find joy in this, the game will never reach the point that one player has it locked down and big swings in fortunes are exciting to the right kind of player.

The results of the attack mechanic have a similar effect. On a successful attack the thrown rock and the target rock are destroyed, with all rocks above the target falling into the defenders discard pile. On a missed attack the defender claims the thrown rock into their discard pile. The overall impact of this is that it's generally best not to attack, as you always lose something even if you win. In multiplayer games giving yourself a point is almost always better than taking a point away from yourself and two from someone else, since the player not involved in the exchange gets ahead. You could include action cards to mitigate the problem, "boomerock" will cause attacking cards to return to your deck and "catapult" will let you throw big rocks at the little rocks on top of an opponent's stack practically guaranteeing success, but this creates a new type of problem. Most of the action cards have an attack and defence value of zero, meaning that if they are drawn in the 0-2 bonus cards you apply to attack or defence they are likely to cost you the conflict. Furthermore, since hand sizes are relatively small and there can be many attacks in a turn you can often end up drawing more cards from your deck than you see in your hand, making this aspect of their functioning more important than the card's special effect. Ultimately this leads the game to a place that the best approach appears to be to attack as little as possible and to never buy any action cards.

Having only played the game with three groups I'd hesitate to describe what's emerged in these groups as a dominant strategy, but it does seem like the game rewards boring play. I've railed against this problem when it's been present in my own designs in the past. I dislike it when a player needs to choose between having fun and playing well, ideally a game should make those two things flow together. There's also a mechanical advantage to small rocks for a few reasons, which when identified and exploited can cause the game to become more about when these rocks appear in the quarry than anything else. There are a bunch of things knocking around in this game that analytically I'm not happy with, but in an important way that's missing the point.

I'm a strategy gamer and have been for many years. I've studied artificial intelligence and how it is that games can be solved in their entirety. I've studied psychology and built models of the complex social systems that drive individual's actions. When I sit down with a game the theme falls away and my brain gets to work on analysing the mechanics, it's not quite the case that every game is an abstract to me, but I certainly lean in that direction. What I'm trying to say is: This game is not made for me.

I need to stop analysing things in terms of their mechanics and the behaviours that those mechanics encourage and look at this game through a different lens. Did the people I was playing with have fun?

The answer is a resounding yes. Some of them said so fairly artlessly, saying things like "It was fun." others pointed out what they liked "Fast. Quick. Easy. I always had something to do." That's really what games are about, it doesn't matter that doggedly pursuing the win condition might lead to a refusal to use the more fun actions of the game because using the more fun actions of the game feel like winning. The player who happened to make their tower fifteen spans tall doesn't feel the same way as the one who managed to demolish half of a tower with the perfectly placed attack. As the game is only ten minutes long (The box says thirty, but we had games that ended by the quarry being exhausted in ten) there's not long enough to get too invested in victory in the game as a whole. The art, theme and mechanics are all pulling in the same direction: It's a light and fun experience and doesn't worry about the other stuff.

I think that there will always be a part of me that wants to see the perfect game. It makes me look at something like this and wants to ask "How could the speed and simplicity be maintained while also providing a deep and strategically interesting experience?" Stack and Attack isn't groundbreaking and maybe there'd be some way to more finely balance the components and play such that it'd be a more rewarding experience while still being light and easy. I don't think it's impossible, I'd argue that Hey That's My Fish has achieved such a feat. Still, Stack and Attack has a lot to offer and can provide plenty of fun for casual or family gamers in a neat, quick to teach, quick to play, affordable package.
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