Mechanical Musings

"Game design is an art, and all arts have their own language. In game design, the mechanical elements are a big part of that language - they are like words, which may make up mundane prose (for most of us) or masterpieces (for the Shakespeares of the board gaming world)." I like analyzing game designs and seeing what makes a good game "tick". Sometimes a related idea would not me alone. This is my attempt at finding a place for them.
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The Life and Times of the 3-Wood Space: Resources in Uwe Rosenberg's Games

J. M. Lopez-Cepero "CP"
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Back in the dark days of 2007, when men were men and Puerto Rico ruled supreme, a nice German fellow released a game. The nice German fellow, who had until then been succesful with much lighter games such as Bohnanza, is Uwe Rosenberg. The game, as every Geek worthy of the name knows, is Agricola.

Over the following months, Agricola would take the gaming world by storm, going even as far as to take the coveted #1 spot in BGG. In the eyes of the public, this would also mark Uwe's change of tune - he would go on to release a lot of meaty economic games over the following years, a trend which hopefully will continue for very long.

Agricola certainly has a lot going for it, but there's a humble element of the game which has always interested me. That humble element, and its fascinating evolution in Uwe's subsequent games, is the focus of today's post.

In the beginning: Agricola

If you asked people about the most salient characteristic of Agricola, you'd surely get a lot of different answers - the replayability thanks to cards, the spatial and building elements, the progressively more open action space, blocking... There's one mechanical element, however, which tends to be overlooked, but which is at the heart of the game: the accumulation spaces.

Board Game: Agricola

Image courtesy mcjohnsons @ BGG

Agricola has a lot of action spaces which accumulate resources - instead of giving a fixed reward, the reward you get is, in essence, related to how long the space has gone unoccupied. This is a wonderful mechanic, mostly in two ways. The first one is that it's self-balancing, which, in a game with so many moving pieces, makes perfect sense: even if a given space is not sufficiently attractive at the moment, it will eventually be as resources start piling up there.

The second great thing about accumulation spaces is that they reward timing: you want to wait a bit to get as many resources as you can, but if you wait too long, somebody else will snatch that juicy pile from under your nose. As a corollary, it also makes it attractive to take such a space even if you are not that interested in the resource, just to prevent an opponent from taking a huge pile next turn.

So it's easy to see that the inherent tension these spaces create, coupled with the scarcity which governs every Agricola game (you can never reach everything you want and actions are very valuable), make them an integral part of the Agricola experience.

However, they do have a drawback: their upkeep is quite fiddly, particularly towards the end of the game, as more spaces become available - it takes a while, and it also takes some focus to avoid double-filling or neglecting some of them.

Thus starts Uwe's quest to reproduce the positive parts of the accumulation spaces while keeping the fiddliness at a minimum. The first step in that evolution is Le Havre.

Going small: Le Havre

A possible solution to the fiddly upkeep between rounds is simply to split it - instead of a long replenish phase, replenish spaces one at a time. Of course, it would take forever for the resources to grow back if you waited until the end of the round, so the natural moment for the partial replenishing to happen is just before each player's action. This is what is done in Le Havre.

Board Game: Le Havre

Image courtesy Flashly @ BGG

Le Havre has a 7-space "year track", with (almost) each space in the year track indicating 2 goods. Whenever a player has to take an action, she first moves his marker to the next unoccupied space in the track and adds 1 resource of the correct type to the corresponding spaces. Then she takes the action - either pick up all of a single good in a given space, or visit a building - and the turn is over.

A key difference between LH and Agricola is that the number of accumulation spaces does not vary during the game. This allows Uwe to get away with having a fixed track.

On the other hand, the way the track works introduces a number of interesting effects. If you are counting on a particular resource being replenished, you might have to wait a few actions, since by the time your next action comes up the corresponding space on the track may not have been yet visited. In a way, this mimics the several-actions-between-replenishments cadence of Agricola. You can also calculate whether you will be the first to pick up a freshly replenished resource and plan accordingly.

Also, the track is 7 spaces long, and there's a harvest of sorts after the end of the track is reached (ie. every 7 actions). 7 is a prime number, so you'll get 'short' years in which you'll not get as many actions as other players - again, something you have to carefully plan around. For example, the fourth player in a 4p game will only get a single action in the first year - after the third player takes his second action, seven actions will have been taken and the track will have reached its end. But then, she will be first in the following year, which ensures getting two actions during the year and sometimes gives other perks.

So in Le Havre, Uwe progressed in two directions: first, simplifying the needed upkeep; second, intimately tying the resource replenishment into the game 'clock', as the track takes care of both replenishment and the game pacing.

The main drawback of the LH solution is that, as long as the track is fixed, it can only work if the amount of accumulation spaces remains constant. A possible solution would be adding extra pieces to the track - either making it longer, which smells fiddly, or having more replenishments happen for a given action, which risks unbalancing it in favor of players who happen to land on the "extra" spaces more than the others.

Going big: Ora et Labora

While the Le Havre solution is fantastic, it's clear that it's not as general as the one in Agricola. In particular, it's desirable to have an option which reproduces the full replenishment of many resources between turns, instead of the "quantum" nature of LH. The next stop in the evolution of the accumulation spaces is a stroke of genius: the rondel of Ora et Labora.

Board Game: Ora et Labora

Image courtesy kilroy_locke @ BGG

The rondel mechanic of Ora et Labora has been lauded, and rightfully so. It elegantly solves the fiddly upkeep problem - turn the wheel, and everything is updated. It has some added advantages, too. Spaces being too unattractive with a single resource? Change the wheel and bam - spaces go from 0 to 2 in the first rotation. New resources appear mid-game? Add a new marker to the wheel. And it also has some Le Havre in it too - just like the track in LH, the rondel doubles as the game clock. Mechanically, it's one of the most elegant solutions I have seen, up there with the Tzolk'in wheel.

Of course, not everything can be elegantly emulated with the rondel - the added flexibility has its drawbacks. While you could conceivably convert Agricola to a rondel (something which can't be said of the Le Havre track), it would be imperfect in a number of ways, mostly because in Agricola there are many spaces which provide the same resource (would have to be tracked with separate markers) and/or provide multiples of it (would have to use multipliers in the markers, or 2x/3x independent rondels).

What happens here is that Ora moves resource replenishment from being tied to particular spaces in the board to a more abstract, "market" economy of sorts, in which you get a number of resources dictated by the market regardless of how you go about it, and all goods have the same rate of replenishment once exhausted. In Agricola, having "slow" and "fast" replenishing spaces (eg. 3-wood and 1-wood) helps ensure that there's a minimum supply of the basic resources. The Ora equivalent is the 0->2 increase in the first rotation (for 3p and 4p games), as well as the "joker" marker.

Going crazy: Le Havre: The Inland Port

You can still take the Ora rondel one step further. Up until now, the markers represent goods types, and the numbers represent amount of goods - so if you take a wood in the 7 space, you get 7 wood. Straightforward, right? Let's now say that each marker is, instead, an action marker - the wood marker means "Take 1 wood" - and that the numbers in the rondel represent the amount of times you take that action. This makes no difference for resource grabbing, but opens up a huge amount of possibilities if you tie other options, such as transforming or scoring resources, into the rondel.

Le Havre: The Inland Port does just that, profiting from the fact that the Ora rondel can use an infinite variety of "goods" just by having a single marker for each. In LH:TIP, the "markers" are buildings, which allow you to get or transform resources, and their position on the rondel marks how many times you may benefit from their action. It's akin to the Le Havre transformation buildings, with the difference that the amount of times you may transform resources is now limited by the rondel (ie. by how long it has been since the last usage of the building). Add a very elegant warehouse which abstracts away the difference between refined and basic goods in Le Havre and the ability to use your opponent's buildings for 1 franc, and you get a Le Havre-Ora hybrid which plays brilliantly.

Board Game: Le Havre: The Inland Port

Image courtesy saksi @ BGG

I'm pretty excited at the perspective of a "big" game using this mechanic, perhaps with a shared rondel for all buildings - I hope Uwe has something up his sleeve in this regard!

Going sideways: Glass Road

As a brief digression, I'd like to mention Glass Road, since it's an interesting example of how having a cool toy to play with (the Ora rondel, in this case) may give rise to new applications for it.

Board Game: Glass Road

Image courtesy punkin312 @ BGG

At first glance, the Glass Road rondels are kind of opposite in nature to Ora et Labora - they are individual for each player, and they track the amount of resources each player has, rather than the ones available for the taking. But there's a deep connection between them, other than the obvious fact that they have been created by the same mind.

Why does Glass Road use rondels instead of any other way to track resources? Because Ora et Labora-like rondels are exceptionally good at one thing: changing the 'zero' in a scale. In particular, the Glass Road rondels excel at a transformation which is at the core of the game: simultaneously removing 1 of a set of resources and giving 1 of another resource to the player. And they do because the "consume 1 each of these 5 resources" part is very elegantly solved with a single rotation, much like the "add 1 to every resource during upkeep" is elegantly solved by the original Ora rondel.

In conclusion

Game design is an art, and all arts have their own language. In game design, the mechanical elements are a big part of that language - they are like words, which may make up mundane prose (for most of us) or masterpieces (for the Shakespeares of the board gaming world, such as Uwe, Stefan Feld or others).

And, just like a "real" language, it's alive. We have seen how a single mechanical element can evolve and mutate, becoming a generalized powerhouse (such as in The Inland Port) or giving birth to something which, by virtue of "selective pressure", is now disconnected from its original function (Glass Road) while being still traceable to its roots.

Of course, there's always a chance that Uwe, or anybody else, would have been able to come up with the TIP or GR mechanics without all the previous groundwork. But building and expanding upon previous elements is a huge part of board game design - you usually want a game to have both familiar elements and some differences which give it a personality of its own. These differences, in turn, become known by the overall board gaming community, are now available for others to build upon, and will, hopefully, inspire even better and more innovative works down the line.
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