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:
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Setup and Go

United Kingdom
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Original Post

I know that there are a number of people who follow this blog for general game design chatter and who must be sick of hearing about 404, so this one is for them! However since I keep forgetting to link to 404s kickstarter whenever I talk about it I'll do so here Now that we've had enough of that for one post let's get to the point!

It's older than I am, but I played City of Sorcerers as a child. I have fairly fond memories of it, despite never finishing a game. It is divided into two phases, in the first one you go around the city learning spells, building artefacts and generally preparing yourself for battle. In the second half you actually have a test in an arena to determine who is the best sorcerer. The thing is, I found the building up a lot more engaging and generally enjoyed that, but could never be bothered with the actual contest.

This mechanic of having a very distinct building and testing phase is not often seen, but I can understand why it crops up from time to time. Creating is a fundamentally engaging experience, so offering players the opportunity to create is something that is generally well received. However it can be an anti-climax to consult the pointometer to see who has built the best thing, so the temptation to force a more dramatic outcome is quite strong.

I feel that the reason that this becomes disengaging is in the relationship between the two halves. If the build has a negligible impact upon the final outcome then it feels pointless. If the advantage that it provides is too large then resolving the final fight feels like a foregone conclusion.

Incidentally this is the problem I had with my single play of Descent 2nd Edition. We played a two part mission in which the outcome of the first engagement was almost entirely irrelevant to the outcome of the game. I say this as the person who lost the first engagement and then felt like it didn't put me at enough of a disadvantage to be at all relevant - I was left with the feeling that the game had deliberately wasted my time. I'm not sure how typical an experience this is, but so far I've not got around to giving it another shot.

To get back on topic, the trick to the buildup and resolve style of game is to make sure that both halves are engaging, but the degree to which the buildup influences the resolution can make one half strongly disengaging. What's worse is that the level of skill that the players exhibit and the preferences of individuals might make this change from group to group - which makes a generalised design solution all but impossible. It may be this mechanic is simply doomed to failure and will never be part of a successful game.

Then again, maybe not. Galaxy Trucker has done very well with a build and resolve mechanic. I frequently hear the complaint that you do not get to make meaningful decisions during the flight and that it's won and lost during the build, which is really the interesting part of the game. Specifically I hear these complaints while people are setting up the game for another play or flicking through the rules for one of the umpteen expansions it's produced.

I think that it works because it's able to change the nature of the engagement between phases. The challenge of playing a game well is just one type of engagement, there are several others. If the challenge isn't engaging during the second step then switching over to a different motivation can be effective. Once the ship is built the players are no longer in it for the challenge, but are instead interested in seeing what happens next and deriving a certain kind of enjoyment from watching the inevitable destruction of their artifice.

I guess I'd conclude by saying that games that divide themselves into two phases this way have the potential to draw players in with a meaningful creative exercise, but must be careful not to rely too heavily on challenge for engagement.

Can you think of an exception?
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