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, and other balancing features of game design: Part I – Guest post by Mound Builders designer Wes Erni

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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My attention was recently caught by a comment on my blogpost on rubber banding. It was by designer Wes Erni where he wrote briefly about the extensive use of rubber banding in a game he codesigned: Mound Builders (about a native American civilization centered around the city of Cahokia in the Mississippi area before the arrival of Europeans).

Normally I’m not a fan of rubber banding, since it’s often unthematic and leads to players gaming the system, but from Wes’ description it seemed that he had implemented rubber banding in several ways that were both thematic and hard to exploit.

This really intrigued me, so I asked Wes whether he could be lured into elaborating in a blogpost. As it turns out he was quite lurable - so lurable that his post ended up so long that I’m splitting it into two parts.

Lucikily the post was full of interesting information and insights that made me think. I was also pleasantly surprised by the many behind the scenes peeks that Wes gave regarding the development of the States of Siege series of games. So if you’re in any way interested in game design or the States of Siege series then go grab a nice cuppa and settle in, because this one is something special.


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Rubber Banding, and other balancing features of game design – by Wes Erni

Although I have a long history of balancing games, the term “rubber banding” was new to me. After posting a very belated comment on Morten’s excellent recent blog on the subject, he has kindly invited me to make a Guest Post.

Despite a 41 year history as a wargamer (and a 40 year history of dabbling in game design – “White Spheres of Fury”, showcasing the unappreciated intricacies of snowball fighting), “B-17” was my only solitaire game experience until recently. Oh, I played solo a lot, but just as training for 2-player tournaments, or for the sport of “gamebreaking” (there was a ton of “incomplete” designs back in the day). I “retired” from the gaming circuit, shortly after discovering I could make a living from gaming – just sadly not wargames (teaching and playing duplicate bridge). I did help my old gaming buddy (Ben Madison) with some game designs that got published, but I had lost the “killer instinct” for gaming myself.

But then, a few years ago, Ben showed me Israeli Independence. The man that mastered AH’s Third Reich 30 years ago, would have laughed off such a game, the man I am today was fascinated. It was elegant, and so quick to play (with tremendous potential for development). Rapidly, I was collecting, playing, then designing, and finally playtesting State of Siege games. As my solitaire game experience is almost solely with Victory Point Games, I will reference them continuously throughout my Post. At times I will be very critical of some of their elements – but I never dealt with a company that so strives to put a good, thoroughly playtested game in the hands of their customers. When they fail (and they have) they face the problem, and then take steps to fix it (I have long experience with game companies that refuse to do so).

The most recent State of Siege game (Mound Builders) presented unique challenges to balance, and the Rubber Band” syndrome was center-stage. I did not read Morten’s RB blog until after finishing the game, but another blog “Variation or tenseness” was in my mind throughout the design process. Greedily, I attempted to achieve variation AND tenseness.

Game balance can mean many things. The balance between theme and mechanics, or between control and chaos, are two important issues, but I will only lightly discuss them (I suspect most of Morten’s readers are more versed than I am on these aspects of solitaire games). I will discuss the internal, and external game elements that should be balanced in solitaire games, and then focus on the “Rubber Band” concept.

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Mound builders in a non-final playtest build. Image credit: Wm Seabrook

Internal Game Balance

This is a subject that only I seem to be passionate about -- but since it colors all my design work, I should briefly discuss it. Internal game balance refers to the balance of player options (both tactically, and strategically). I feel every game option should CLEARLY be the optimal approach at least SOME of the time, and should be at least worthy of consideration MOST of the time. This is actually harder to achieve than you might think, especially in games that offer lots of options, and chrome to support the theme.

Violations abound tactically – a few examples: in Cruel Necessity, spending a Zeal point to support a tactical battle, in Zeds, attacking Hand-to-Hand with a Hero, In Ottoman Sunset, moving around the Intelligence Bureau, In Zulus, putting out fires, etc., etc. Very rarely do these options even approach optimum use of resources, in the cold, mathematical light of day. Strategically, it is very common that the “historical”, and “logical looking” strategy is clearly inferior to more “gamey” approaches (even in a fantasy game – Zeds – saving the Civilians, and Refugees, is just not worth the energy that should be spent callously winning the game).

Personally, I like to face tough, interesting decisions, with multiple REASONABLE options in my arsenal (those true, beard-stroking pauses). And it is not just the hardcore gamer I am looking out for – I feel the thematic player can profit knowing their chosen play style is never going to be ludicrously inefficient. My girlfriend played Mound Builders with a friendly “Powwow with everybody” base strategy – this may not have been optimal, but the intrinsic advantages (supported by VERY favorable deck order), made it a surprisingly successful strategy.

Of course, having good internal game balance is actually an obstacle to achieving good external game balance, with good “rubber banding” – the more reasonable options available, the harder it is to thoroughly playtest all the permutations.

External Game Balance

The Victory Point Games design philosophy is to give solitaire players around a 20% chance to win in their State Of Siege series. They fail at this repeatedly, as all GOOD games would fail (and quietly, they know this fact as well). VPG games are often referred to as “dice-fests” with only “obvious choices”. Most of this criticism is based on inexperience, rather than mastery – because in most cases State of Siege games offer surprising depth. I don’t doubt that at some point in player’s development the 20% threshold is reached, but these games offer “top-outs” well in excess of 50%, if the player puts in the effort.

Of course, “therein lies the rub” (I could do a Post on this subject alone). Most players (this includes me) don’t take the time to master a game – between “the cult of the new”, and their considerable collections, it is very easy to “move on” before “solving” each games mystery. When I started playing again, I caught a lot gaming “nuggets”, but I missed many others. It wasn’t until I started to thoroughly playtest, that I realized just how much depth there was. Through experience, ruthless efficiency, exploration of nuance
(the “unevenness” of the game) startling strategies with phenomenal victory chances could be discovered. There is an ineffable satisfaction that comes from playing a game (or anything for that matter) really well. It doesn’t come from plaques on a wall, or amazed opponents, it just is – at least for me.

Victory Point Games is a very “reactive” company, one reason why so many 2nd Edition, and “Director’s Cut” versions are produced. I love encouraging “good play”, but for balance (and game tension) reasons, we would like “mastery” to top out at around 50 %. Complicating the issue, is that external game balance is VERY easily disrupted when designers attempt “rubber banding”.

Dynamic Game Balance (or Rubber Banding)

The Rubber Banding phenomenon was brilliantly laid out in Morten’s January 19 Post of this year. It dealt with the “runaway leader”, and “fallaway loser” syndromes in solitaire gaming. This is a topic that I was forced to deal with in a big way while working on “Mound Builders”. Mound Builders is the brainchild of my design partner Ben Madison – he provided the vision, almost all the research, the basic structure, the two part idea, random varied Chiefdoms, most of the rule writing (and all of the flavor text) – pretty much everything that the thematic player appreciates. I just provided the game.

As much as I become an “assassin” while playing games, outside of that arena I am intensely concerned with realism (I was a military historian before becoming a wargamer). While playtesting, if I am not a student of the topic, I speak only on game matters. But, if that topic is in my “wheelhouse”, the designer, and developer are subjected to running stream of “suggestions” on improving historicity. In Mound Builders (a term I would have thought applied to baseball groundskeepers a year ago), every game design feature needed to support (or enhance) Ben’s theme – in this instance, the vagueness of the historical record, happily worked to my advantage.

The Mound Builders problem

One of the key “twists” in Mound Builders is the random map to be discovered by the player. Another is that Action Points allowed not be fixed, but variable, based the current economic status of the “empire”. Right away, I knew the runaway leader/fallaway loser syndrome was going to dominate design work. Nobody wants to play 5 minutes and “know” the eventual result, with the next 40 minutes being spent as “proof”. To support the trading theme, I wanted players to receive economic benefit even from Lands they didn’t control, but that “band-aid” didn’t come close to fixing the problem. So:

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Now you know why they’re called Mound Builders . Image credit: Wm Seabrook

Rubber Band #1 Action Point mixture

In the game’s opening phase, all of the Event cards gave a fixed number of Action Points (State of Siege standard), in the heart of the game, there is a roughly even split between fixed and variable AP’s, in the endgame all Event cards feature variable AP’s. This diluted the impact of extreme economies and enhanced playability. It also supported historical research – the area around Cahokia was remarkably fertile in its “heyday” (one reason it grew enormously), but climactic (and other negative) changes slowly eroded this advantage (some authorities speculate this was the principal reason for Cahokia’s demise). This design approach has no direct parallel to any SoS game.

RB #2 Action Point boundaries

In Mound Builders, you always receive at least one Action Point (and can have no more than nine). This is similar to both Cruel Necessity, and Empires in America. In CN, (3-9 Zeal range) both extremes are RB in action (and are a great “Necessity”). In MB, the 1AP not only softens the “horror” cards, but players can manipulate this by “ransacking” their economy (for temporary great advantage), and then go “on welfare” for the rest of the game. This represents good “desperation” strategy, but would never appeal as a “foundation” strategy (no one should use this strategy as their Plan A… or B, C, or D)

RB #3 The price of success (and the silver lining of failure)

Both "Tech" advances in Mound Builders have a sliding cost based the players current success level. However, this represents common sense as much as Rubber Banding. The greater the wealth, the greater the population (evidence confirms that a large immigrant population flocked to Cahokia, despite the unhealthy crowding), and the greater the difficulty in enacting sweeping, empire wide changes. Similar constructs occur in Lost Cause (Morale Tests), and Levee en Masse and Cruel Necessity (Reaction cards -- in CN these events dictate my foundation strategy)

Many "State of Siege" games have “side Tracks” (that usually highlight the player’s political standing), which if "hardened", have major Rubber Band impact in punishing success, and rescuing failure. For example: in Levee en Masse, the political tracks have “rigid” edges (you can’t have less than -1, nor more than 4), event results that move the political marker against a "maxed-out wall" are ignored. This is a very logical RB rule, but can be ruthlessly exploited in the Expansion. I embraced Despotism (and Napoleon) completely, and spent most of the game ignoring Politics and Revolts. The huge savings in Action Points granted me enormous military firepower, even without the normal +1 modifier (as Stalin said, “quantity, has a quality, all its own”). A last minute political rush (for VP purposes) would often result in Republicanism greater than Despotism – if the Track edges had been “soft” (not bounded), I would have had a 30+ point disparity. Of course, Levee designer John Welch solved this “gamebreak” very quickly – if you end the turn with your Republican rating at -1, you instantly lose. Succinct, and very effective.

Hapsburg Eclipse had started playtesting with a “hard” Ethnic Loyalty track – very quickly that was changed to the anti-player “hard on the right, “soft” on the left approach. This decision was also embraced by We Must Tell the Emperor, and Malta Besieged -- with the added twist that nice bonuses accrue if you are maxed out, but great inefficiency results if you end up wasting a favorable track move. Cruel Necessity has a nice “soft” track layout, but had a “no additional penalty” RB rule for complete failure. During final playtesting, devious player actions forced a “4 F’s, you die” rule addition (it is not easy to prepare for everything in game design).

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That’s all for today folks, I'm cutting Wes short here, tune in again in three days’ time, where the second half of his post will go online.
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