Thematic Solitaires for the Spare Time Challenged

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Runaway leader and fallaway loser syndrome in solitaire and coop games - Part I: Why they matter more than in competitive multiplayer games

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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The discipline of solitaire game design has a problem compared to competitive multiplayer game design: Competitive multiplayer gaming is much more common and has a much longer history than solitaire and cooperative gaming. One result of this is that most texts on game design deal with competitive multiplayer gaming and never consider solitaires or coops. This has the consequence that the terminology of game design is rooted in competitive gaming, and that the theory of solitaire/coop game design sometimes isn’t as sophisticated as that of multiplayer game design.

An example of this is the term runaway leader syndrome (explained below). This term clearly refers to multiplayer gaming, because you can’t lead if there’s no one to be ahead of. Apparently this can lead people to think that runaway leader syndrome isn’t important in solitaire games, and the cause of me writing this post is a recent email exchange with a solitaire game designer who said that he had never heard the term used in relation to solitaires and coops and it seemed to me that he didn’t see them as something that currently was or ought to be dealt with much in such games unless in extreme cases.

This brought it home to me that runaway leader syndrome and its degenerate cousin fallaway loser syndrome apparently isn’t universally accepted and used by solitaire game designers. Therefore I’ll use this post to explain what the two terms mean and why I think they’re even more important to consider for solitaire and coop game designers than for designers of competitive multiplayer games. Then in one or more future posts I’ll dig into games that do and don’t suffer from the syndromes and from them try to distill some ideas on how to deal with the issues.

So what do the fancy words mean?

If you’ve been reading about game design or mechanics you probably already know what runaway leader syndrome and fallaway loser syndrome are and if so please skip this section, but if not then let me briefly explain the two terms.

Think of the game Risk. In this game you conquer countries, which don’t do you any good, but when you control an entire continent you receive a number of extra armies each turn. When this happens you get more armies than your competitors, and it’ll therefore be easier for you to conquer more countries and thus continents, which will mean that you’ll get even more armies per turn while your increased strength can help keep the others from gaining control of full continents. This means that if unchecked then once you get ahead you’ll get more and more ahead. This is called runaway leader syndrome – I’ll abbreviate it RALS in the rest of the text.

Closely related to RALS is the opposite syndrome where if you fall a bit behind your position gets increasingly worse. This is called fallaway loser syndrome, which I’ll abbreviate FALS.

The two syndromes can also be seen as feedback loops in the game mechanics if you prefer to think of it that way.

Games thrive on tenseness

Designer Wes Erni has succinctly described why RALS and FALS are problematic:

”Wes Erni” wrote:
Nobody wants to play 5 minutes and “know” the eventual result, with the next 40 minutes being spent as “proof”.
Try to think back to some of your best memories of gaming, not those where the great part was being with the other players socially, or where you had a particularly delicious snack while playing. Think instead of those gaming memories, where the game experience itself was awesome. I’ll venture the guess that you’re most likely thinking of a game session where the game was extremely close, maybe several players kept one-upping each other and taking the lead, or you were behind the leader for most of the game and then after tight race overtook him in the last turn.

Now try to think back to some of the most boring gaming memories. I’d guess that apart from those related to analysis paralysis your memories are related to game sessions where someone got ahead quickly and it was impossible to catch up, or even worse you alone fell so far behind that for the rest of the game you just went through the motions so as not to spoil the game for the others, without you having any chance of beating any of the others.

My point is that games thrive on tenseness, they’re the most fun when they’re close races, each player must feel like they actually part of the race, and this is why runaway leader syndrome and fallaway loser syndrome are so important to deal with: They can pull the fun out of an otherwise brilliant game, because they remove tenseness and the chance of catching up.

The two syndromes are even more important in solos and coops

The section above deals with competitive multiplayer games, but the two syndromes are equally problematic in solos and coops: It’s no fun if you know early on whether you’re going to win or lose and as Wes puts it above, it’s just a matter of spending the next 40 minutes as “proof”.

I’ll take this one step further: It’s more important to create game mechanics that deals with runaway leader and fallaway loser syndromes in solitaire games than it is in multiplayer games, because in all 3+ player games that aren’t parallel solitaires the players can influence each other, and thus intelligent players can gang up on the leader to hinder him and they will engage in mutually beneficial behavior with the player who’s behind because he’s not as much of a threat.

An example of this is Catan where there are clear runaway leader and fallaway loser issues, but as a counter weight it has the trading and robber mechanics. Players will embargo the leader so he’ll be hindered by not being able to trade, and they’ll place the robber next to his most valuable spaces, which lowers his production. Similarly players are much more likely to do a trade that’s slightly to the advantage of the player who’s behind and they won’t use the robber to mess up his game intentionally. So Settlers has two mechanics based on it being multiplayer that keep RALS and FALS in check.

Solitaire games and coops don’t have the luxury of leaving such balancing to the players, and thus it becomes even more important to have game mechanics to deal with it.

A comparison of three similar games with and without RALS/FALS handling

I’ll end this first post in my series on RALS and FALS by comparing three games in the same genre that deal with the issue very differently. The genre in question is lane based tower defense: Games where you defend a central location threatened by enemies moving towards it via a number of linear lanes. If any one of them ever reaches the central location then you lose. Your means of surviving are attacks that can push back the approaching enemies.

The first example I’ll discuss is Israeli Independence where there are five lanes, but there are mechanics in place that allow you to shut down three of these and if this happens then victory is almost assured and the rest of the game becomes playing out the proof. Luckily Israeli Independence plays in something like 3 minutes so the issue is not that pressing.

External image

A defeat in Israeli Independence. Image credit: Aleksander R. Nordarden Rødner

Israeli Independence is the first game in the States of Siege, some of the later games in the series fix the issue. An example of this is Legions of Darkness where none of the lanes can be shut down: There’s simply a strict limit on how far back you can push an enemy army, and this limit is fairly low, so even if you push all enemies all the way back the game can change to a dangerous situation in the course of a few turns.

So Legions of Darkness plugs one RALS hole from the original States of Siege engine of Israeli Independence, unfortunately the game has a couple of mechanisms that introduce RALS in another way. The first is the morale system where the morale of your army gives you more or less actions per turn, and the way to keep morale up is by spending actions. This means that if you get the morale up you’ll have an additional action per turn, which makes it much easier to keep the morale up and thus continue to have the extra action, while if your morale go low you lose an action per turn and will therefore have fewer actions and thus have a harder time getting the morale back up. Since the actions are also what makes you win the game it is seen that has both RALS and FALS.

The RALS effect is made stronger by another mechanism: Traps. In Legions of Darkness traps that you place basically give you free actions in certain situations, and building them costs actions. So if you get morale up you’ll have more actions making it more likely that you’ll get to build traps, which give you even more actions and thus the positive feedback loop of RALS is strengthened.

Overall this means that once you’ve gotten the morale up and the traps built, then the tenseness can disappear, which is a pity because when the RALS feedback loop doesn’t get started the game can be tense and downright awesome, but when it gets started RALS turns the game unexciting.

Furthermore both Israeli Independence and Legions of Darkness have RALS and FALS in another way: When the enemy armies are pushed a bit back you are not under immediate pressure so if you in Legions for a turn get a bonus against flying enemies, then you can spend your actions on attacking flying enemies and get the most bang for your actions, while if a non-flying enemy was right next to your castle you’d have to spend your actions pushing it back in order to avoid the risk of losing in the next turn, which means that you won’t get to use the bonus you had.

So are RALS and FALS inherent to tower defense games? No, I’ve previously written about how another lane based tower defense game Castle Panic has a rather clever mechanism that makes it so that you have an easier time hitting the enemies when there are a lot of them, and harder when there’s few, which sets up feedback loops in the opposite direction of RALS and FALS. Since I’ve already talked at length about this feature of Castle Panic I’ll just link to the post where I do this instead of rehashing my explanation: Rubber banding done right.

All of this means that that because of RALS and FALS handling Castle Panic are more likely to stay in the tenseness zone that the designer wants, compared to Israeli Independence and Legions of Darkness where an otherwise tense session can fizzle because of lack RALS controlling mechanisms.

While I criticize two States of Siege games here, I hasten to add that in general I like the series (including these two games), and they do all have mechanisms (not mentioned here) that limit RALS and FALS, but some of the games in the series are in my opinion made worse than they could be by not dealing sufficiently with RALS.

Coming right up

I hope that this post makes it clear what runaway leader and fallaway loser syndromes are and that they’re very important to deal with for solitaire game designers. With that out of the way the rest of this blog series will analyze games that either do or do not deal with RALS and FALS, and from this we’ll learn some mechanisms that solitaire and coop designers can use to combat the negative effects.

Other posts in this series

Runaway leader and fallaway loser syndrome in solitaire and coop games - Part II: Revisiting rubber banding
Runaway leader and fallaway loser syndrome in solitaire and coop games - Part III: Feedback neutrality, fragility, and bounding
Runaway leader and fallaway loser syndrome in solitaire and coop games - Part IV: Engine and party building
Runaway leader and fallaway loser syndrome in solitaire and coop games - Part V: Are we solving the right problem
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