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Designer Diary: Caught Up in Catchup, or My Attempt at a Deep, Minimalist Game for Everybody

Nick Bentley
United States
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"The famed Argentinian writer Jorge Borges said that to not read Dante's Divine Comedy is 'to ascribe to a secret and obscure asceticism'; this comment also applies to Catchup."

"Catchup is truly a masterpiece."

"Catchup is a work of genius..."

What Are These (Unsolicited) Quotes About?

Catchup, a simple puzzle game of surprising turnarounds that I suspect is my best game which is now available for iPhone and iPad and which looks like this:

...and this (in meatspace):

...and which was designed by this handsome drink of water:

Two players take turns placing stones on a hex board, and each tries to have the largest contiguous group of his stones when the board is filled. The catch: the closer you get to winning, the more powerful your opponent gets. The result is a short + peppy + deeper-than-you-expect game of pinpoint timing and position.


One consequence of being utterly obsessed with designing games is one can develop a sense that one's efforts are...worth something, by which I mean one can be convinced one's games can tear space-time and reignite dying suns. It's hard to focus on something for thousands of hours without investing it with undeserved significance (a fact which explains Kanye West, btw).

I've been designing games for fifteen years, and this sense still overtakes me though I know, in a frontal-lobey way, how stupid it is. Hundreds of moronic designs have afforded me at least that tiny mote of perspective.

Nonetheless, there remain a couple of my games among the fallen hordes that afford a snatch of hope I might be capable of something good. Catchup is one of them. I've now played it more than one thousand times, and I don't hate it yet. As the quotes above attest, other people don't hate it, too. I'm ready to vouch for it.

More to the point, I want to intrigue you enough to buy it as it's among the best things I've done with my time here on Earth.

Here follows the story of how it came to be. Pray it doesn't bore your kneecaps clean off. LET'S GO!

Bewitched by Emergent Complexity

I'll start with my original motivation, which is as old as my game design practice.

One of the games that first inspired me to create games is Hex, invented — or you might say "discovered", if you believe in a platonic realm of pure forms — independently by both the great Danish polymath Piet Hein and Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash.

It has among the simplest rules of any game and yet it's deeeeeep. The rules are so simple, many folks don't believe there's anything to it:

"...it can be 'solved' relatively easily, making it no longer replayable."

Ha. To anyone who's studied Hex strategy or crossed swords with a Hex master, claims like this are comically ignorant.

Hex creates a magnificent, if hidden, universe of possibility and play from what appears, on the outside, to be almost nothing. It's magical. I wish everything could be like that. Why can't I have emergently complex underpants? Anyway, once I saw what was inside Hex, I was bewitched and shortly after I was a game designer.

Other People: Not Impressed

Not everyone appreciates Hex's particular grandeur. In fact, Hex and its ilk have a narrow audience because:

1. Many people find them boring. Such games can fail to grip, a fact tied to their emergent complexity. After all, emergent complexity is emergent, which means you won't see the interesting stuff right away. Since lots of people want games to be exciting from the first play, it's no surprise emergently complex games fizzle.

2. Many people find them intimidating. Almost by definition, skill matters a lot in such games, and many of us don't relish feeling lost and being crushed over and over by better players.

I've wondered whether it's possible to remedy these problems. To pursue the question, for years I've been trying to design games with some of the Hex magic, but with wider appeal. Success would entail, I believe, creating something shortish, unpredictable, and punchy, which helps you have interesting thoughts from the first play and which either prevents end-to-end beatdowns or makes them feel...gentler.

Kris Burm's Project GIPF games make me believe it's possible. They feel peppy and exciting right away, and they have a wide audience. And while they don't have the same structural simplicity of Hex and can still be intimidating, they're in the right ballpark.

The First Glimmer: I Explore Catchup Mechanisms

So I asked the question over and over: What could address the problems described above? Among the mechanisms I studied in pursuit of an answer, one class were the so-called "catchup mechanisms". The term refers to mechanisms to make trailing players stronger or leading players weaker in a game.

I was interested in catchup mechanisms because it was easy to see how they could influence the early experience of a game. The first time you play a new game with any emergent complexity, you tend to play randomly-ish. Under such circumstances, the right catchup mechanism would tend keep games close until the end, with no player pulling too far ahead. The result might be barn-burning endgames where neither player feels crushed without knowing why, at least initially. I thought the resulting tension might help keep players interested until they start seeing the emergent stuff.

I Suspect Catchup Mechanisms Stink

I also saw problems with catchup mechanisms:

First, I don't actually want every game to be close. Uniformly close endings feel repetitive. Instead I just want games between inexperienced players to tend toward closeness. Between experienced players, I want close games and blowouts and everything between, for the sake of drama and variety.

Second, in games where luck plays a role, catchup mechanisms amplify the effect of luck on the outcome. If I'm trying to showcase emergent complexity, I don't want that. I want the outcome of the game to be a sensitive reflection of all the subtle maneuvering that emergent complexity allows.

These problems put me off catchup mechanisms for a bit — until I realized I didn't have to be quite so discouraged.

I realized I could solve the too-many-close-games problem simply by making the catchup mechanism sufficiently weak. It turns out a weak catchup mechanism can push games between novices to tight endings without dooming expert play to repetitiveness.

I also realized I could avoid the luck-amplification problem by excluding luck. Duh. In fact, when there's no luck, catchup mechanisms can become another source of tactics and strategy, and thereby make a game deeper. This turns out to be especially true when the catchup mechanism is weak, so it doesn't drown out other sources of tactics and strategy or make the game opaque (another occasional effect of catchup mechanisms).

It turns out adding a catchup mechanism is like spicing a dish: You should add only a little, and if you add even a hair too much, the dish is ruined. This would become a central challenge of designing Catchup, as we'll see.

I tip my hat here to Kris Burm's game YINSH, the most popular GIPF-series game, and the game that most helped me understand how to do catchup mechanisms well.

In Yinsh, each player tries to make a row of five pieces in her color and to do so three times. Each time a player makes a row of five, she loses one of another kind of piece needed to build rows, which restricts her options from then on. This acts as a weak catchup mechanism. Yinsh has no luck, and the catchup mechanism works beautifully. I believe it plays an important role in Yinsh's popularity.

Once I realized Yinsh was a good proof-of-concept, I got serious about catchup mechanisms. My enthusiasm was abetted as I came to understand two other key benefits of catchup mechanisms I discovered with more study:

1. They can make timing important. A catchup mechanism can make a good choice on one turn bad on another. I like this because it makes choices more context-specific, which makes "universal killer moves" (i.e. no-brainers) less prevalent.

2. A catchup mechanism can make a game feel unpredictable, which is critical if the game has no sources of luck.

The Second Glimmer: Building Big

Around when I was first thinking about catchup mechanisms, I was also doing goal-first design, by which I mean inventing a game's overall goal first, then building the other mechanisms around it.

Reason: a game's goal creates for the players a vision of what they need to do. The clearer and more intuitive that vision is, the more immediately engaged players are likely to be, so it makes sense to start with the goal and build around it.

One goal I wanted to build a game around was a "build the biggest structure" goal because it's conceptually simple and embodies what I call an "intuitive metaphor", which means we're already familiar with the nearly ubiquitous notion, from real life, that big things are good and worthy of pursuit. (Think McMansions or Donald Trump or Marseille or the Fortune 500 or Hulk Hogan or "Think Big".) Whether this is healthy is another question — the point is the concept feels natural and familiar to nearly everyone.

The Precursor: Big and Dumb

The simplest "build the biggest structure" goal I could conceive was to construct the largest 2D connected group of your pieces on some kind of tiled surface.

As is my habit (and it's a good habit to have), I started by studying the dumbest implementation I could imagine: Two players each have stones of the their own color, and they take turns placing a single stone onto any empty space on a tiled board. When the board is full, whoever has the largest connected group wins. Let's call this game "Big and Dumb".

Big and Dumb is plainly broken. The player who places the first stone has a clear, unbeatable strategy: She can place her initial stone on the most central spot on the board and grow out from there. Depending on the kind of board you play it on, she can trivially ensure either a win or a tie for herself.

One way to look at the problem with Big and Dumb is that it suffers from too much clarity; it's too easy to see how to play optimally.

When I looked at it that way, it occurred to me I might fix Big and Dumb with a catchup mechanism, since catchup mechanisms can reduce clarity. And by adding a catchup mechanism to a game which was far too clear for its own good, I'd have slack with which to adjust the strength of the mechanism, without making it too strong.

The First Version of Catchup: Barf

The first version of Catchup was just like Big and Dumb, except the player who trailed at any given time (i.e. whose largest group was smaller) could place two stones on her turn instead of one (the catchup mechanism), and players weren't allowed to place stones such that the two players' largest connected groups were the same size at the end of a turn (to prevent over-frequent ties).

I showed this design to Arty Sandler, founder of igGameCenter and supernaturally-intelligent demigod, and we played. It was hideous. However, I thought I sensed a little promise, obscured under the igneous formations of crap, so I fiddled.

The biggest problem was the catchup mechanism was too strong and it made the game foggy. The dynamics were geared around capitalizing on the final turns, but it was too hard to see the connections between most of the game's turns and those final ones. Players had no idea what to do and played randomly (and listlessly) on 85% of their turns. As I say: barf.

I tried to fix this by specifying that a normal turn consisted of placing two stones instead of one (using the protocol from Connect6), and the trailing player could place three stones on her turn instead of two. This halved the strength of the catchup mechanism relative to the strength of a normal turn. It improved the game and I got a little excited.

My excitement was a bad thing because it prevented me from addressing remaining problems for a while. There followed a fallow period of maybe a year during which the game didn't change.

Then one day during a summer vacation, I was reviewing Catchup by playing solo games against myself and I suddenly felt the severity of the flaws. I mean, I'd known there were problems before then, but I'd downplayed them in my enthusiasm. There were two big problems:

1. The $^#@!%G Catchup Mechanism Was Still Too Strong

In the rules as they were, the trailing player got an extra stone on every turn he trailed.

Still too powerful. As I got better at the game, I realized there was rarely incentive to leap into the lead, which limited tactical and strategic variety.

More futzing followed, and I eventually changed the rule so the trailing player only got an extra stone when the size of the leading players' largest group grew. With that, the catchup mechanism was activated much less frequently, and you had to position your pieces more carefully to take advantage of the benefit. It felt right. Once I made that change, it supercharged my desire to perfect the game. There was still a problem though:

2. The Stone-Placement Restriction Was Horrible

The game had the following rule to prevent over-frequent ties:

You may not take your turn such that at the end of it, the players' largest groups are the same size.

It shouldn't have taken me so long to get frustrated with it. As I've written on my blog, banning moves that players naturally want to take is bad business. It adds pointless cognitive overhead and breaks flow. I was in denial because I didn't know how to get rid of the restriction.

At around this time I was playing a lot of genius designer Reiner Knizia's ingenious game...Ingenious. One of the bits I'd come to love about it is the tiebreak mechanism, which I've come to call a "fractal tiebreak".

A fractal tiebreak is a series of nested, tiebreaking win conditions, all with exactly the same form, and all replicating the form of the game's overall goal.

In Ingenious' case, each player has a bunch of different point categories, and the goal is to have a higher score in your lowest-scoring category than your opponent does in hers'. If there's a tie, players compare their second-lowest scoring categories, and so on, until they come to a pair with different scores, and whoever scores higher wins.

I realized I could add something similar (but conceptually simpler) to Catchup: If the players' largest groups end up the same size, players compare their second-largest groups, and so on, until they came to a pair which weren't the same size. Whoever owns the larger wins.

By adding this fractal tiebreak I could dump the placement restriction designed to prevent ties. This fix was straightforward and intuitive and had the added bonus that, if the board you play on has an odd number of spaces, ties are impossible.

I was proud of that rule to begin with, but in retrospect, I've come to think of it as my niftiest Catchup design maneuver. For reasons I didn't appreciate until after I became skilled at the game, it made Catchup deeper, but that depth is hidden such that new players won't realize it's there — a key feature given I wanted the game to be inviting. It was a complete and completely pleasant accident. Essentially, it forced experienced players to adopt "whole-board strategies" and turned Catchup from a game with a single goal to a game with multiple implicit but conflicting goals.

My Verdict

With that, Catchup assumed its current form. Does it achieve all my goals for it? Did I create something "shortish, unpredictable, and punchy, which helps you have interesting thoughts from the first play and which either prevents end-to-end beat-downs or makes them feel...gentler"?

Mostly. The one thing it doesn't really do is prevent end-to-end beatdowns. Presently, I don't think it's possible to create a game where the outcome is "a sensitive reflection of all the subtle maneuvering emergent complexity allows" that also prevents experts from annihilating less experienced players. Nonetheless, the game did end up feeling more open and forgiving than its ancestors, novices are frequently excited about it from the first play, and games between them do tend toward close endings, as I'd hoped.

Hopefully you'll play it and declaim (within earshot of others), "How did Nick Bentley manage to squeeze so much into so little?!? Why, that man's a BEAUTIFUL GENIUS" and then you'll send me a check for like $10 or something.

A Lucky Break and a Plea

I'm not the only person who's doing heavy sledding, development-wise.

About two years ago, a skilled app developer named Martin Grider — you may know him from such game apps as For the Win — contacted me and asked whether he could develop Catchup for iOS.

He wasn't pitching me a project I would pay for. He would do it at no cost to me, even though, as a successful developer, he's not in the habit of making such offers. Of course I jumped at it.

And then it became a passion project for Martin. Consequently he spent way, way more time implementing Catchup than he normally would have, time he could've spent doing paid work as he normally does. He's been working on Catchup for almost two years now.

He also enlisted outside help to make everything perfect, for example hiring AI specialist Tysen Streib to create the computer opponent. So now the app has an incredible AI whose strength automatically adjusts to match your own, but it also increased the size of the already-big effective pay cut Martin took to make Catchup a reality.

He's told me that for this effort to make anything like financial sense, the app has to get well north of 10,000 downloads (at $3 a pop), i.e., a buttload.

Now, Martin doesn't expect to get that many downloads. This is his passion project and he seems intent on just making a good thing.

On the other hand, I'm flabbergasted someone I didn't even know before this project began decided to see it to completion and such great cost to himself and zero cost to me.

So, I want to help him, and to show my gratitude, and the best way to do both is to get him downloads.

I can't repay him without a lot of help. If you want to help me give a great, great guy a gift he richly deserves, I'd be grateful for help publicizing this game.

In Return, a "Stretch" Reward

(...even though this isn't crowdfunding)

I'll keep a list of people who help spread the word about the game (e.g. social mentions, links to this article, reviews, app reviews when the app is out, and anything else you can think of — PM to let me know what you've done so I can log your name) between now and August 21. If the app gets 10,000 downloads between today and August 21, I'll pick one person from the list at random and award him/her with the following:

1. I'll commission an artist to make a high-quality, artfully-designed custom Catchup set.

2. I'll fly to the lucky winner, at my own expense, to give that custom set in person.

3. I'll bring a few other print-and-play sets with me, and using them, will run a one-night Catchup tournament for the winner and up to seven of their friends, at which I will be the exceedingly charming MC and Cooker-of-Dinner (contingent on kitchen availability).

A Final Word

Releasing an app may seem like a small thing, but for me it's a big thing, and BGG has played an outsize role in helping me get here. I'm profoundly grateful for the friends I've made and the guidance so many of you have provided through the years. Some of you would be surprised if you knew how important you are to me. You have my deepest thanks.

And now I'm off to design some emergently complex underpants.

Nick Bentley
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Subscribe sub options Thu Aug 7, 2014 4:22 pm
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