So yesterday I wrote about the difficulties involved in setting the difficulties in 404. After going through a specific example highlighted by a reviewer I arrived at the general point that the value of some of the directives changed from game to game. These changes could be quite extreme, were predictable from the game state and improved the game for a lot of players.
I think that this is such a common feature of games that I'm going to find it in the majority of a random selection of games. The notion that options have a fixed cost but a variable value and that a player must identify what the value of an option is this game seems like a fundamental building block, but let's try it. My BGG profile has 35 games owned so I'll randomise three from among those and see how common this feature is.
22, 19 and 10. That's Descent: The Sea of Blood, Go and Merchant of Venus.
Descent: The Sea of Blood is one of the few games that I've rated as a 1 on BGG. I've tried with a few different friends, but we've never managed to get a playable game out of it. I think I'm going to have to talk about some imaginary version where the games lieutenant combat issues have been sorted because otherwise all options are equally worthless.
There are a lot of different choices to be made in the game, which characters to pick, which skills to take, what equipment to use, where to go, when to run and so on. It'd take a long time to list all of the choices where the pattern is apparent but it is perhaps most obvious in the items. All item cards of the same type (copper, silver, gold) are nominally as valuable as each other, but from the players perspective they change dramatically. Frequently there are times that a player would be willing to pay double cost to obtain a weapon of the type they could use and would refuse to buy other items even if they were half price. The real value of the options is dramatically different to the nominal value, depending on the situation.
When Go came up I wasn't sure how I'd deal with it, as at first glance it doesn't involve any sort of 'game currency' to express the nominal cost of things. Thinking more deeply about the subject, it has plenty! The principle economy of Go is turns, there are a lot of mistakes new players make by imagining what they could do with two moves in a row and playing as if they might get them. There are moves you can make to try to buy yourself more turns, or to turn your turns into other currencies like territory or thickness. After a fashion Go can be thought of as a very rich resource trading game, disguised as an area control game.
To this perspective the nominal-actual value discrepancies are immediately noticeable. Placing a stone on any space will cost a turn, but there are clearly some spaces that are dramatically more valuable than others.
Merchant of Venus. A game explicitly about buying things at one price and then selling them for a bigger price. It feels a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, but yeah this one qualifies. Strictly the price increase alone doesn't do it, you could assign each good a nominal value based upon the ration between the cost to acquire it and the profit for delivering it. These nominal values still are not accurate to real values, as demand counters, hull space and geography make the real values diverge dramatically.
So it seems to occur everywhere, making the real question: "Why did a nominal value that differed from a real value draw comment in 404 where it's a core part of the game play for so many other games?" Since it occurs as a feature everywhere it's as much a part of bad games as it is of good games, so what determines when it's done well and when it's done badly?
As with so many things I think it comes down to how it feels from a players point of view. If a player thinks "I chose well there, that thing was valued lowly, but I realised it was worth a lot in this situation and made the right choice." it strikes them as a well balanced option that improved the game. Conversely if a player thinks "That was lucky, I chose something with a low value but it had a really high value randomly." then it feels crappy. Winning or losing through extreme luck is rarely rewarding next to a win based on your own merits. This in turn comes down to telegraphing.
Ultimately for these sorts of discrepancies to produce rewarding gameplay, rather than frustration, the game needs to let the player know why things happened the way they did. I think that for 95% of the directives 404 does this very well, but in the particular example that came up yesterday it failed. There's nothing to express "This is a more valuable directive due to this being a rare game in which there are few other players and you've not seen any directives involving the monkey or bananas", it just seemed particularly valuable for no reason.
This serves to highlight the importance of playtesting, on a purely theoretical level I'd not considered all of the implications of the HIDE FEEDING objective until today, meaning that a theoretically based understanding of which directives should be in the game would have been flawed. Fortunately I've based my decisions on watching people play the game and so can still be confident that the directive adds a lot more to the game than it costs. The notion of combining items (in this case a monkey and a banana) in the specific absence of another item (in this case a human) doesn't appear on any other directives so it contributes to a feeling of variety in the directives that is critical to good play. It also offers a meaningful choice to players who've had a few games, once they can recognise how and when the nominal-actual value discrepancy changes. Finally some players just enjoy the theme of feeding the monkey while nobody is looking.
If you enjoy my asides on game design, please check out 404 on kickstarter and give it a shout to your gaming type friends. If you hate my asides on game design, please point out 404 on kickstarter to all of your friends so that they can validate your views. In any event, enjoy your games and have fun