Thematic Solitaires for the Spare Time Challenged

A blog about solitaire games and how to design them. I'm your host, Morten, co-designer of solo modes for games such as Scythe, Gaia Project and Viticulture.
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Rubber banding done right

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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How do you make sure that your spiffy new game design is balanced so that it won’t suffer from runaway leader syndrome or the death spiral of fallaway loser syndrome?

One possible solution is rubber banding, but until recently I had never seen that implemented full scale in a solitaire and I had a hard time seeing it work well. A few days ago I encountered a game that had rubber banding implemented so well that I didn’t even notice it was there until the next day where I was analyzing the design.

Runaway leader syndrome and its degenerate cousin

Before talking about rubber banding let’s take a look at the problem it’s a band aid for. Consider the game Lord of the Rings LCG. In this game you play against a set of encounter cards that present obstacles to you. The set of encounter cards for a specific scenario is set in stone and it doesn’t change based on the success of lack thereof of the player. Each scenario will normally have a difficulty that ramps up towards the end, but there is random variation caused by the random order of the encounter cards.

During the game you build up a set of adventurers and equipment (represented by cards) and if things go well you’ll get more and more of these and thus you’ll become more and more powerful.

This means that the game is an arms race between the increase in power of the player and the ramping difficulty of the scenario. If the balance is just right so that you struggle constantly, then the game is awesome. On the other hand if you come ahead you can become so strong that you can take all that the encounter deck throws at you and eliminate it immediately without losing (important) adventurers, and you’ll be able to draw cards faster meaning that your rate of power increase goes up over time, and the encounter deck cards will never get a chance to build up cards. Thus success will breed success and you’ll become so powerful that the scenario won’t challenge you. This is known as runaway leader syndrome.

On the other hand you might meet runaway leader syndrome’s nasty cousin, fallaway loser syndrome and get off to a bad start meaning you won’t be strong enough to kill off the cards launched at you by the encounter deck, and thus they’ll pile up and kill you gradually over a series of turns.

Another example is Israeli Independence where you’re defending Israel from five Arab armies marching towards Jerusalem on five linear tracks. If a player gets off to a good start he can wipe out three of the five enemy armies and will thus only have to deal with two armies meaning that the rest of the game will most likely be a cakewalk. This can be a bore and the game has no mechanism to prevent it. In the case of Israeli Independence it’s not a big issue, since the game can be played in minutes.

Rubber banding done wrong

In video games the same issue exists. Like in a board game the video game is the most fun when the difficulty is just right. Let’s take a racing game as an example. If the player gets ahead quickly he’ll often face a boring race where he doesn’t meet any other racers, and he’ll have an easier time than his computer opponents, since they’ll have to deal with other racers being in their way.

An obvious way to counteract this is to let the game change the ability of the computer controlled racers dynamically in response to the ability of the player so that they become faster if the player does well or slower if the player does badly. As far as I know the Mario Kart series of games do this.

Balancing difficulty in this way is called rubber banding, because it works as if the computer controlled racers are attached to the player by rubber bands.

When the player starts to notice it can feel annoying and lead to the player gaming (pun intended) the system, such as purposefully not taking the lead in a racing game until the very end. When this happens the game stops being a racing game and instead becomes an attempt to abuse the rubber banding system. This makes rubber banding a maligned game mechanic.

Video games can sometimes get away with rubber banding though, because it’s the computer that implements it and thus it’s hidden from the player.

Rubber banding in board games

In solitaire board gaming, on the other hand, rubber banding is a rare beast. I’ll venture the guess that one reason for this is that unlike in a video game it’ll be the player who needs to manually implement the rubber banding and thus he’ll immediately notice what’s going on.

In a discussion in a previous blogpost that ended up involving rubber banding game designer Steve Carey wrote the following about rubber banding in the game Navajo Wars:

”Steve Carey” wrote:
A Victory Check phase resets and also caps both the player's Military Points and the enemy's Morale Points, two elements used to determine victory.

It felt strange at first, but now I see its necessity to prevent a runaway during one of the mini-decks, which would spoil the overall game.
So (and I hope I’m not putting words into Steve’s mouth) he’s saying that it felt weird implementing the rubber banding rules, though in this case he was OK with it, because he thinks the game is great.

In my opinion every time a player feels weird implementing a rule it pulls the player out of the thematic world of the game and reminds him that it’s a game and for a thematic gamer like me that’s something I dislike.

Nemo's War also has a small mechanic that could be considered a rubber banding mechanism. Each turn in the game you roll 2d6 and if the sum is larger than 10 you draw an event card. If in a given turn you roll less than 10 the requirement is lowered to 7+ and as soon as you get an event, the requirement goes back to 10+.

This is a nice and simple mechanism that makes the flow of events more steady, which is important for the game, but to me it’s clearly a mechanism born of game balancing needs, not one born of thematic parents

Rubberbanding in multiplayer board games

I specifically stated that rubber banding is a rare beast in solitaire gaming, and I chose to do that because I think that for solitaires a well working rubber banding mechanism is more or less unavailable to the solitaire game designer, which is often easily available to designers of multiplayer games: Ganging up on the leader.

An example of this is Catan. In Settlers the players are building settlements using resources that they either produce or get from trades with the other players. When a player gets far ahead or is close to winning the other players can decide together that none of them will trade with the leader, which can slow him down significantly. This mechanic is perfectly sensible thematically and works well as a rubber banding mechanism without feeling as such, and it’s not so heavy handed that the player’s will purposefully game the system.

There’s a second mechanism in Settles that has the same effect: The Robber. Each turn the current player rolls 2d6 and if he rolls 7 he gets to move a robber from its current location to any space on the board, which stops the space from producing resources. When one of the players gets ahead the other players will normally start to place the robber on a space that’ll hurt the leader the most and since each player has the same change of rolling a 7 the 2 or 3 players who’re behind will be able to control the robber better than the player who’s ahead and thus he’ll on average be hurt more by the robber than the other players.

So we have two rubber banding mechanics in Settlers that aren’t actually explicit mechanics in the game, but instead something that emerges from the players playing intelligently, and thus they players don’t feel weird about the rubber banding instead it feels perfectly natural and reasonable within the fiction of the game.

Many multiplayer games have this ”rubber banding by ganging up” mechanic, but it can’t really be used in solitaire games, because there are no players to gang up on the leader.

Rubber banding done right in a video game

Now I don’t think it’s intrinsically impossible to do a good rubber banding mechanism in a solitaire. One example of a mechanism that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a solitaire, but which could easily work is the corruption mechanism in Civilization III. The mechanic works so that the further away one of your cities is from your capital the more corruption there will be in the city and that’ll waste resources. This means that a civilization that’s big will be hurt more by corruption than a small civilization and thus there’s rubber banding, but like in Settlers it makes sense within the theme of the game and thus it doesn’t feel like an artificial game mechanism that destroys the player’s suspension of disbelief.

Rubber banding done right in a solitaire

So my point is that rubber banding is hard to do right in a solitaire, but a few days ago I did find a solitaire where I didn’t even notice that rubber banding was there until I spent some time analyzing the game design the day after playing it.

The game I’m talking about is Castle Panic. In this game you defend a castle against monsters marching towards it on six linear tracks (and thus it has a lot of similarities with Israeli Independence mentioned above).

In Castle Panic you have a hand of six cards. Each card specifies a number of spaces on the board and you can play a card if there’s a monster in one of those spaces. If you do this the monster is wounded and you discard the card. At the beginning of each turn you replenish your hand back up to six cards.

This system means that when there are few monsters on the board only a few spaces on the board will have monsters and thus you most likely won’t be able to make many attacks. So while you’re doing well you won’t be able to hit the enemy hard so he’ll have a chance to become stronger.

Similarly when there are a lot of monsters they’ll fill up a lot of the board and thus you’ll most likely be able to use a lot of your cards to hit them.

So this system actually implements rubber banding, but the rubber banding works as a side effect of the main game mechanics instead of being implemented by special rubber banding rules and this meant that I didn’t even notice that rubber banding was going on. In my opinion that’s pretty nifty and I tip my hat to designer Justin De Witt.

Other examples?

Castle Panic taught me that rubber banding can work in solitaire board games, but it’s the only example that I can think of. If you have examples of rubber banding in (solitaire) board games or in a video or multiplayer game where the mechanic could be transposed to a solitaire, then I’d love to hear about it.
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