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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Making a game feel tense through emotional investment

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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Death tension is often an important factor in making solitaire games fun for me. I must feel that something important is on the line most, but not all of the time. So since all game designers are of course aiming to please me, they should now be asking themselves how they go about creating death tension in their games. Luckily for them I’m going to present one answer to that question today.

Before going on to that answer I’ll pause to talk about the States of Siege series of games. It’s a series of tower defense games where enemies march down linear tracks to conquer a central location, which you try to defend.

I’ve had quite a States of Siege binge lately playing 6 of the games in a few weeks taking me to a total of having tried 11 of the 16 games in the series. The nice thing about this series is that all the game shares the same common core mechanics and this makes it great for studying game design, because it’s easier to see what mechanical differences result in a certain gameplay effects or player reactions. Because of this I’ll be using States of Siege games to illustrate my points in this post.

Direct representation

In the first two games of the States of Siege series, Israeli Independence and Soviet Dawn, you have no pieces on the board directly representing your forces. Instead, you have an enemy army on each track and their positions show where the frontlines are.


Image credit: N/A. A game of Israeli Independence. Notice that the counters on the board represent the enemy armies – your forces have no physical representation.

This way of doing works well to simplify the game mechanics, but it also makes the games feel more abstract and high level, and you as the player will have a harder time feeling emotionally invested in your forces, since they’re not there to be seen, and none of them can be killed or injured. Thus the battles won’t feel as tense, because it’s not a battle between your soldiers and the enemy, it’s the movement of an abstract and incorporeal frontline. This decrease the tense feeling of something important being on the line in battles, except when enemies threaten your “tower”, since losing that will cost you the game.

The third game in the States of Siege series, Zulus on the Ramparts changed this by adding named heroes, but only some of them are represented on the board, and their presence there feel more like static fortifications than living soldiers, and their lives are never on the line in battle.

The next game in the series, Empires in America, took things a step further by adding named leaders to the game that could be killed in battle and gain or lose reputation and battalions in their armies. This helped making you care about the outcomes of the battles, but there was still an abstractness to it, since the leaders are never actually present on the board, they just seem to be beaming around the place Star Trek style and instantly disappear again once the battle is over. In the extreme case, during one turn you can have an army in 17th century North America be in Ohio one moment, then turn up in Nova Scotia, and finally beam in to save the day a bit south of the Hudson Bay. I know that that single turn of Empires in America represents something like a full season, so you could argue that I’m making it out to be worse than it really is, but to me it feels like one army beaming around the continent while everyone else is standing still.

Later on Legions of Darkness added heroes that where assigned to one track at a time, who could be injured and killed in combat. This added some emotional attachment, but the player’s main force was a more abstract army that was never present on the board, but it could lose soldiers, which made it feel more real.

Legions of Darkness could superficially seem to have the same Star Trek beaming issue as Empires in America, but given its much smaller scale of defending a single castle, it seems much more plausible to me that one army can spread out over several positions around a castle or fire arrows at various armies surrounding it.

Thus of the States of Siege games released up until that point in the series Legions of Darkness is the one that gave me the greatest emotional investment in the battles (though I haven’t tried The Lost Cause and Ottoman Sunset), by having your forces somewhat present and on the line.

Dawn of the Zeds followed Legions of Darkness as the next game in the series and it one-upped Legions of Darkness by having each and every player unit represented by a counter that moves around from space to space on the board. They can all get hurt and die in combat, some of them are named persons with flavor text, and there are strict movement limits that avoids “beam me up Scotty”-like situations.

Board Game: Dawn of the Zeds

Image credit: Victory Point Games. Counters showing the individual player units for the first edition of Dawn of the Zeds.

For me this made my forces in Dawn of the Zeds seem much more real than in the other States of Siege games, and I had a much larger emotional investment in them and thus the fights they were involved in felt as if something important and dear to me was on the line. I think this is one of the major reasons Dawn of the Zeds is the board game that I feel most strongly about, and why it feels so cinematic to me.

Putting a face on the enemies

If we go back to Zulus on the Ramparts we’ll see that not only did it add a bit of personality to the player forces, it did the same to the enemy armies because they got hit points and could be wiped out, which removed some of the abstract feel.

Empires in America added named leaders to the enemy armies that could be killed and who could lose their soldiers, and in some ways they seemed more real than the player leaders because they didn’t beam around the countryside, but mainly stuck to one front.

While Legions of Darkness upped the direct representation of the player forces, it went the other way with the enemy forces by making them abstract fronts that never took any loses, just like the first games in the series.

Again Dawn of the Zeds took things a step further by having enemy units directly represented on the board. There were no longer just a frontline, there could be multiple groups of zombies walking each track and they could be hurt and wiped out. Ironically, this meant that the fiction of zombies felt much more real than the armies of Israeli Independence, which were based on real history and real humans, and thus the immersion was increased.

So overall the battles in Dawn of the Zeds felt like battles between real humans and monsters (well, as real as board game about zombies can feel), the outcome of each battle means something, and thus you get much more emotionally invested.

Of course there’s a price to pay for this: I can get in a game of Israeli Independence in 5 minutes including setting it up and packing it away again, for Dawn of the Zeds I’ve never managed to get that time below one and a half hours, while Zulus, Empires and Legions fall somewhere in between those two extremes. Representing each unit in the game and making it move around simply takes much more time than the abstracted fronts of Israeli Independence (though there of course also other factors contributing to the lengthier playtime).

Cruel Necessity, a newer game in the series, seems to go even further down this path by introducing a mini game that you play out each time a battle occurs. I haven’t tried it, so I can’t speak to its effect, but it seems to increase the playtime quite a bit.

Board Game: Cruel Necessity: The English Civil Wars 1640-1653

Image credit: Tracy “The Lonely Meeple” Baker. The board for the battle mini game in Cruel Necessity.

So my point here is that direct physical and somewhat “real” feeling representation of your forces (and to some extent also enemy forces) on the game board, and have them be able to be injured or killed, will increase your emotional investment when battles happen in the game and thus the game will feel more tense.

Making spaces be more than just spaces

It should be clear that as humans it’s easier to get us emotionally invested in a game if we can relate to humans in the game, but in the States of Siege games more often than not you don’t risk losing your human soldiers. What you risk losing is instead a space on the board, and largely it’s… well, just a space on a board. The space itself doesn’t feel valuable to you, and thus battling over it doesn’t add tension, though tenseness is added by the fact that losing a battle means that the enemy is closer to the one thing you do care about: Your central location, because if you lose that you’ve lost the game.

Already the second States of Siege game, Soviet Dawn, added mechanics that made at least some of the spaces on the board feel important, e.g. if enemies invade Petrograd then it’ll cost you politically and if you don’t hold the Eastern front beyond Ekaterinburg, when the Czar’s fate is decided, then you’ve basically lost the game. The advantage of this is that the game feels much more tense and exciting when the enemies threaten these specific spaces.

The fourth game in the series Empires in America added the option to build defensive fortresses in many locations on the tracks, which helped the player, but would be destroyed if lost to the enemy (Soviet Dawn actually had a single space on the board that could be fortified). This idea was reused in several other games such as Levee en Masse, We Must Tell the Emperor, and Dawn of the Zeds. The latter also has several other spaces on the tracks with special significance, such as places where ammo or food is easier to find, villages with inhabitants that you should protect, a secret research lab, etc.

The advantage of having such special spaces is that it suddenly becomes a real loss to you if the enemy takes them, and thus the battles for control feel much more tense, and at the same time variation is added. The downside is that while each individual battle will feel more tense, it becomes harder for the game itself to stay tense, since having spaces that grants special powers is a recipe for Runaway Leader Syndrome/Fallaway Loser Syndrome, so care needs to be taken by the designer.

The latest States of Siege game, Mound Builders takes the idea of making some of the spaces more than just a space a step further: Every space explored by the player in Mound Builders become special. When the player reach a space during the first act of the game a chiefdom counter is randomly drawn and placed on the space. The player can upgrade these chiefdoms by building mounds on them (this is called “mounding”).

Board Game: Mound Builders

The chiefdoms contribute to your economy and if mounded they can contribute more and will serve as defensive positions. Thus a battle for any space on the board feels like something is on the line, because, well… something is on the line. Furthermore, it makes you as the player care more about each space. You’re the one who has chosen to build your empire the way it is. Thus it becomes your empire, not an empire given to you by the designer, that’s under attack and seeing parts of it conquered or destroyed has a higher emotional impact, which adds to the tension of the battles.

Going beyond the sieges

Summing up, I can answer the question I asked initially succinctly by saying that getting the player emotionally invested is one way of making a game feel tenser. In explaining some ways of doing this I’ve focused on the States of Siege games and their battles, but the point I’m trying to make is much more general than that: Get the player emotionally invested either by making him be able to relate directly to his playing pieces, or by letting him be the one who builds up something that is then put at risk.

I’d argue that often little touches like having direct physical representation of your forces (or whatever) on the board instead of representing the enemies and having them be at risk, can make the player feel more involved.

In my own micro PnP game Endless Nightmare you’re being hunted by a monster called The Shadow, and in the initial version that hunt was represented by a counter on a numeric track, which indicated the distance between you and The Shadow. Based on suggestions from playtesters this was changed so that a playing piece was present for both you and The Shadow on a single track. Functionally the two ways of doing it was identical, and the system was actually a bit more fiddly, but from an immersion point of view it was vastly superior. It took a system that had a counter representing a non-tangible concept (distance) and replaced it by having direct physical representations of the player and the monster moving on the same track, where the distance could be determined visually.

I’m not saying that Israeli Independence would magically become a better game if the Arab army markers were renamed to be Israeli army markers. Quite the contrary - that would probably make for a worse game. What I’m saying however is that, if you work on a new design and want it to be tense, then consider whether you can have a direct physical player representation. So every time you add a mechanic, consider whether you could make one that’s mechanically equivalent, but would raise the player’s emotional investment, and whether you could make the player risk something he is emotionally invested in.
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