Straight Talk on Strategy Gaming

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Nate's Top 10 Games & Things

Nate Straight

Covington
Louisiana
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So I guess we'll start off [Cat beat me to it] by talking about what we each currently like in gaming, so you'll have an idea what this blog will likely discuss and where it will likely head toward.

I'm sure we'll talk a little more in later posts about what got us into gaming and what our gaming pasts have been, but that's less useful for you in determining whether to follow us.

Without further ado, here are ten of my favorite things to find in games, and some of my favorite games:

1) Unbalance

"Carefully balanced" games just aren't interesting. "Fine tuned" engines are unrealistic. More to the point, the closer a game gets to the point where every possible strategy if played equally well has an equal probability of winning, the more pointless the activity of playing the game becomes.

Now, I don't want the same strategy to win every time or only one option to be interesting. No, I want strategies to interact with each other in ways that make their values dependent on the other players' choices and the values of each option dependent on the way the other options have been used.

If I lose at the end of the game, I want to be able to say "Crap, that was a stupid choice of strategy" and not "Well, she played her chosen strategy better than I played mine."

The game should depend both on good strategy selection and on good strategy execution. Most games declare good strategies to players rather than ask them to find them.

Some options should be better than others, but it should not be clear how or clear why.

The Series: 18xx games are excellent examples of unbalanced games. Some companies are dramatically better to run / own than others, but the extent to which this is true depends on what happens in the game.

Your strategic choices of companies to buy, to run, to help, to dump, and where to make all of this happen on the board conflict directly with everyone else's. The one whose strategy best fits the current game will win.

Here's a quote from another user about his favorite of the 18xx series:

"Unstable, prone to great drama, screaming run-away winners, amazing hail-mary come-from-behind wins, jaw-droppingly clever coordinated move sequences, and more volatility and dynamism than you can shake a stick at"

That's it. Give me that and I like your game, with almost 100% certainty.

2) Space

Both in terms of a breadth of game variety and in terms of an actual physical game topology to move around and set up positions in.

If most of the items in the game go one place only and do one thing only while there, chances are you've lost my interest up-front.

I want to be able to ponder where to go in the game. I want the feeling of exploring a strategy to work out as exploring a literal space.

The concept of distance or position is very rarely abstracted well, and I find that I don't enjoy games when it's not represented at all.

3) Player-created economies

This relates to #1. I want games that allow players to create their own game balance and their own transformation or valuation functions.

The more a game approaches the point where the value of everything is declared [lit. "Explain down", c.f. "impose"], the less I care.

Do my moves affect the value of things you need to complete your strategy? Do my moves shift the incentive structure of the game?

Can I create an entirely new trade-off within the scope of the game? Can I tip the balance of the entire game system in my favor?

A dramatically great example of this [and of #2] would be my all-time favorite game, Alien City. The board starts off, much like Go, with almost no inherent value structure. There are a few touchstones to provide some early direction, but the vast majority of the game is creating and then figuring out how to leverage to your advantage the game's structure.

The most wonderful thing about Alien City is that, like Medina, everyone owns everything until a claim is made. The entire game is about figuring out when the value structure you've both been creating has reached its optimal point, and then choosing to cast your lot in at that point. Each player gets to make this judgment three times, and each judgment affects all future plays.

Another more obvious example would be Container, where players implicitly negotiate the value of just about everything in the game.

In Container, you cannot win unless the other players tell you that you can. The game consists of creating a system where they're forced to do so.

4) Actual economics at work

All games are about choices, so in a sense all games are about economics.

That said, very few games truly embody economic concepts in any real way.

Most of the games dubbed "economic" or "economic engine" on this site are not economic, but financial [at best].

They are about computing NPVs, IRRs, Betas, etc. They're about investing resources to make profit from them.

Economics as such is about scarcity, marginal benefits, opportunity costs, implicit losses, and price structures.

I know of very few games that are economic in any meaningful sense. The best example I know of is Agricola.

This is a game both Catherine and I really enjoy. We'll discuss it more later, for sure.

For present purposes, see this brilliant review of Agricola as an economic simulation.

5) Broad, in preference to deep, decision trees

Whenever I ask for recommendations along this line in the forums, I just get games that have "lots of decisions".

That's almost the opposite of what this is about.

I like games that are not based on action timing or action chaining, but on action selection [see strategy talk above].

Puerto Rico is a good example of the complete opposite of the type of game I like, in this regard. On most of your turns, you will have maybe 3 choices to select from. "Hmmm.... do I take Craftsman now? No wait, next turn they'll be able to take Captain and all of my goods will get wasted. Do I take Trader? Hmmm... I have nothing to trade."

Even beyond role selection, the choices are limited: "Hmmm.... there are two sugar plantations available to me or one indigo." "Hmmmmm... I have three coins, I can build any of these 5 buildings." The game intentionally limits your choices at any given time to less than half a dozen, making their sequencing rather than their selection the key game idea.

I hate this. I want to have at least a dozen dramatically different viable alternatives of ambiguous utility on my turn.

I don't want my decision trees already pruned for me.

I like some micro-action games [Antike is one that slides by], but it's not my preference. I do like overlapping micro-actions.

Roads & Boats is an example of that. Take away the map and the multiple transports, and you have [almost literally] Le Havre, which is a good enough game but nothing special. Roads & Boats is most certainly a game about action timing and action chains, but it differs in that you have to handle dozens of chains at once and figure out how to overlap them effectively.

For this reason, Roads & Boats feels like a "broad" game, even though you can calculate all look-ahead moves to the end of the game.

6) Ambiguity

Ambiguity: The property wherein a thing has more than one interpretation.

Of all of Empson's seven types, and more.

"What is that?" "What does it do?" "Where does it go?" "What is its value?"

Those are the questions I want a game to ask.

But, I like ambiguity even at the meta-game level, where the game itself is in question.

Zendo might be a good example of this. Is there any sense in which you're "playing a game" of Zendo? I don't know. It's an activity, it has rules and a rigid structure, it has a "winner" [of each round].

But, the game isn't about winning [and it isn't even about the tired Knizia quote's "goal that is important, not the winning"]. The game is about not winning for as long as possible until something interesting happens.

The goal as a player of Zendo is to create an interesting game experience for all involved.

Do you make random assertions and see how they work out?

Do you make a rule as master that is devilishly clever yet easy to grasp once uncovered?

Do you progress by making tiny modifications to things you already know, in hopes of deducing small elements of the big picture, or do you make koans that are as wildly different from all known information as possible?

Is the game about guessing rules or is it about how to guess rules? Is the game a game at all, or is it a simulation of scientific processes of induction? I don't know. I don't care. It's everything I want in a game.

But, there is one thing that is more ambiguous even than Zendo. If you've followed me the past year, you know what it is.

The Decktet is the pinnacle of ambiguity in gaming, and perhaps my favorite gaming thing ever.

Its creator describes it as "Perhaps, the kind of tarot deck they use in the alternate universe where Charlemagne was a badger."

That alone is sufficient to explain the ambiguity that is the Decktet, but allow me to digress. The Decktet doesn't exist in an alternate universe at all, of course; it exists in our own. Why would a deck from our universe declare itself to be from another?

The Decktet is ambiguous on all possible levels. Its identity is ambiguous [see above]. Its construction is ambiguous [is there an order, or isn't there?]. Its concept is inherently ambiguous [is this card's suit suns or moons?]. Its artwork is ambiguous.

There is a card in the Decktet called "The Darkness". It is a completetly blank card. You see, you can't "see" the art in the dark. But, "no art" means a bright white card!

Nearly every card in the Decktet has two "orientations", both literally and figuratively. As you turn a card around, the right-side-up artwork changes from passive to active.

There is ambiguity of almost all other sorts in the art, as well. Is the lizard at the campfire by The Borderland's wall an outsider seeking entrance or an insider on a picnic of sorts?

Are the animals anthropomorphic, or are the people zoomorphic? Are the various "natural" animals [the tiger being fought in The Battle, the horse being ridden in The Journey] also "people"?

Is the Merchant buying goods from suppliers on The Market card, or is he selling goods to customers? There is not a single card in the Decktet with an airtight interpretation.

Then, there are the games.

Ace Trump [among many others] allows you to break the cardinal rule of trick-taking: Follow suit, or trump?

It answers "Well, do both."

My own game, Conundrum, breaks another rule, that of a hand or a trick "being in" a certain suit. In Conundrum, you don't know what suit a trick is or what suit is trump until the trick is over and someone wins it.

In Bharg, you go out either by having everything "bound" in a set [which means basically that they share no characteristics: no suits in common within sets], or by having everything not bound [which means all the cards share a suit], or some combination.

And so it goes in all the Decktet games.

If you like the concept of "multi-choice cards" from Selwyth's board game taxonomy, the Decktet amplifies it exponentially.

It is one of few true gaming innovations.

7) Make do

I want to be confronted with unexpected situations in games, both from the actions of other players and from the structure of the game.

The place you can see this most clearly is in Components: Traditional Playing Cards, which are about nothing if not a "make do" attitude toward gaming.

This doesn't mean I want random outcomes. It means I want random, tenuous, unseen, guessable, hypothetical opportunities to face.

If the game gives itself away and all its possibilities away on first sight, it's just about as interesting as a girl who does so would be.

Yes, you might have fun with it for a night or two, but there's no lasting allure or interest there to keep you coming back for more.

This means I have a preference for games with a mild amount of uncertainty introduced by the game system itself [i.e. randomness].

But, that randomness should not be incidental [i.e. Puerto Rico's plantations], but structural, affecting each game's incentive structure.

I want the game to present itself to me in new and different ways every time I play, to get all dolled up in a dress I've never seen, to be poetic.

8) Asymmetric incentive structures

Hopefully these are starting to seem intertwined by now. This obviously relates to many things I've already discussed.

In particular, when a game randomizes opportunities / incentives, I would like it to do so differently for different players.

A game with a random setup at the game-level [Settlers] is less interesting than a game with a random setup at the player-level [Race for the Galaxy].

A game that presents all players with the same opportunities [Dominion] is less interesting than one that presents them with different ones [Acquire].

I want to feel I am doing something different not just because a winning strategy is "do what no one else is doing".

I want to do something different because I have different sub-goals within the overall goal of winning the game.

9) Events that do not happen every game

Power Grid is a good example of the opposite of this. Someone's going to go heavy into nukes every game, someone's going to bid up the price of the first 5 plant that comes out, someone's going to lurch out ahead and press the tempo, someone's going to stall the game while they pile up cash, etc.

I want a game that has things that can happen that may never happen in any individual play. It may take 10, even 20, even 50 plays before the event occurs, before someone pulls off the "big one" and scoops up that massive pile of points that no one else could figure out how to get at.

Magic Realm is a good example of this.

You can play entire games of Magic Realm without even cracking open the section in the rules on magic itself! You can play entire games where the detailed and intricate hiring process never plays a role. You can play games where no one finds a "treasure within a treasure", or where everyone does.

The game is set up to not just be "bigger than the sum of its parts", but to be bigger than any one play can ever encompass. This, not mere variety or randomness or even difficulty, is the heart of the much sought after "replayability" to me. It is like you're stepping into the game itself during the time you're playing.

10) Historically minded but decidedly its own design

Splotter Spellen. There's really no need to say more.

Nearly everything in Splotter's games is taken from somewhere else [crayon rails throughout, Series: 18xx's structure and RĂ¼diger Dorn's "leave a trail" mechanic in Ur: 1830 BC, Merchant of Venus recreated in Duck Dealer, etc], but they all feel like independent creations.

Rather than just take a new mechanic [say deck-building] and throw a different cost structure on top of it, Splotter takes a mechanic and throws it into a different use entirely. Their deck-building game would be about putting cards into a communal pool which is shuffled and used to create a map on which resources are generated and collected each turn, or something.

The Decktet is also along these lines. I've already claimed it [see rating comment] as "the most innovative and compelling thing [of] the past decade", and I think it is. Here's why: The Decktet takes an age-old concept [ranked and suited cards] and changes its very structure.

Don't reinvent the wheel. Put it inside another one.

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Well, that about does it. Now you know pretty much everything you might want to know about my taste in gaming, so we can move on [after a pair of "gaming history" posts] to more interesting things.
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